Our dear sister Azadeh had some questions in response to the recent booklet On Universalism – Is faith in this life required to enter into eternal life? regarding a form of universalism that exists among Christians: that believing in Jesus will get you to Heaven, regardless of any other consideration.
This is getting to the heart of the great controversy – the relationship between the law and the gospel, justification and sanctification, and the general confusion that exists in Christianity. It is such a big topic that I would like to quote Azadeh’s question first, because her question is insightfully framed in terms of her experience as a convert to Christianity.
It is a fact that many of our Christian brothers and sisters think they are saved because they have come to believe in Jesus, even though in reality they are clearly following false/man made teachings and traditions (like the Pharisees and Jews) ... A dear friend of mine from the Lutheran church I first was baptized in, after much harsh rebuke and heartache that he expressed towards me, after he realized he could not change my mind about Adventism (he clearly thinks Adventism is a heretic cult, as he said, like Jehovah’s Witnesses), he said to me (I could see he was comforting himself): "You know dear Azadeh, it's ok, when you got baptized, you stepped into the "Jesus-train", and this train will take you to the right destination." Now, there is absolutely truth in this statement, but he said it to reassure himself that I was not lost even though (to his frustration) I now was choosing to believe in the Sabbath, Ellen White as the prophet of God, and all the other "heresies" of the Advent Church.”
Also when I asked the Pastor of the same Lutheran church (this was in the beginning when I still did not know about Adventism) about false teachings and why so many Christian denominations, he quoted 1Corinthians 3:11-15.
For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; Every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is.
If any man's work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward.
If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire. (1 Corinthians 3:11-15)
He basically meant that when we have come to believe in Jesus, regardless of what we come to believe/learn later on (what we choose to build on the faith of Jesus, false or true), we will be saved. He was referring to the "building materials" as doctrines/teachings; the more noble material, the more truth in the teaching/denomination, but the person himself will be saved. But recently I was made aware that sister White connects the building material in these verses to people!!! It's a huge distinction. Here is the quote from sister White:
"The figure which Paul uses of the temple erected on the foundation stone is to represent the work of God's servants to the end of time. To all who are building for God, the apostle addresses words of encouragement and warning: “If any man's work abide, which he have built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire.” The Christian teacher who faithfully presents the word of truth, leading his converts to holiness of heart and life, is bringing precious material to the foundation; and in the kingdom of God he will be honored as a wise builder. He who neglects to teach the truth in its purity, will gather converts who are not holy in heart and life. He is bringing material that will not stand the test. In the day of God he will suffer loss. Though it is possible that those who have spent the best of life in teaching error may, by repentance and faith, be saved at last, yet their work is lost. Their life has failed of the good results that might have been secured. Souls have gone down to ruin, who, by a faithful presentation of the truth, might have been saved. Says the apostle, “Let every man take heed how he buildeth."" SKETCHES FROM THE LIFE OF PAUL, PAGE 160
So from this quote, in 1Cor 3:11-15, the "he" that is saved is the Christian teacher, and that ONLY after repentance, if he realises that what he has taught others was error and he repents. But the lower quality materials are all people that get actually "burned up", or lost!!! ... So then there is another aspect here, which also needs to be cleared up. Has our Father really left the eternal destiny of souls into the hands of "some few" teachers/pastors? After all our Saviour says, woe to you false teachers, who will not enter yourself, and also hinder that others enter in; I am paraphrasing Matt 23:13. How are we to read this, and other similar quotes from sister White, especially in GC (when those that were misled (I believe we should rather say, they ALLOWED themselves to be misled) by false teachers will realise it is too late!). Doesn't the Bible teach that everyone shall die because of his/her own sin? Is our Saviour taking away personal responsibility for being saved? These passages need to be harmonised.
I don't know about you, but I truly sense these are challenging and important thoughts to be discussed. So that's why I would like to make this request to you and the rest of our beloved brethren (I am sure you discuss this together [note: I didn’t]) if you will consider commenting and including these and similar thoughts, either in this book or separate book/article.
When this Lutheran pastor or my friend thinks that all Christians are saved, no wonder they are such happy people, and so indifferent as to what others teach, or what you personally believe, other than in the name of Jesus. My experience is that there are really very few exceptions, like my friend, who will bother correcting others (and only if they feel very close). And even they at last comfort themselves that it really does not matter, as long as you say you believe in Jesus. So the tranquilizing effect of universalism has still found its way back among professed Christians. ... Then I don't know why they would even bother calling others heretics? Is that not a term used for those that are damned? So I don't perceive consistency in thinking. But mind you, we hear this term much less in our days, exactly because of the tranquilizing effect of universalism, given expression also in warm happy ecumenical gatherings across denominations ... but as we know this is all temporary. The false churches will for sure rise up to severely condemn and lead the persecution of the people of God.
[End of Azadeh's Question]
The same anxiety about people you know and love being lost that causes men to believe in universalism is pushing the type of behavior that Azadeh has noticed among Christians. If not all are saved, then at least anyone who has had some sort of belief in Jesus Christ will be saved. And while it is relatively clear to show that the Bible says that not all men will be saved, it does say that anyone who calls upon the name of Jesus will be saved:
Romans 10:13 For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.
So where does that place Church standards, the law, morality, and Christian growth? It is the number one argument against Christianity by Buddhist, Muslims, Hindus, and other non-Christians: You sin however you want and then you believe in Jesus and you go to heaven, isn’t that too easy?
Of course, this is a critique of the Christian who hasn’t really changed; he lives the same and just uses a belief in Christianity to suppress his feeling of guilt. But even for those who do change and repent of certain things, how much of that is necessary to be saved? How important is character transformation? What is the place of doctrine in salvation? This question has troubled Christianity since its inception, and Adventism even more so because of its emphasis on living up to the requirements of the law.
Men in the past have (incorrectly) understood that professing Christ means we are free to sin. The Apostolic church, represented as the church of Ephesus in Revelation 2, had this issue with the Nicolaitans – “But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (Revelation 2:6); and later the church at Pergamos (323-538 AD) allowed members to “hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I [God] hate” (Revelation 2:15).
The Nicolaitanes taught the community of wives, that adultery and fornication were things indifferent, that eating meats offered to idols was quiet lawful; and mixed several pagan rites with the Christian ceremonies. (Adam Clarke Revelation 2:6)
It is interesting to see that it starts off as the “deeds of the Nicolaitans” and then becomes “the doctrine of the Nicolaitans” – meaning that the acts come first, and then the theological justification for those acts come later. How accurately this process represents human nature; man wants to sin, and then he rationalizes it!
There was the idea among Gnostics that anything related to the physical world was evil (laid out in the book Showing Respect to Colossians). So they avoided the Lord’s Supper, separated themselves from the world, and heavily encouraged asceticism – fasting, celibacy, etc. We see the influence of this in the history of Christianity on the hermit monks and their seeing the body as totally evil.
The inverse of this was that Jesus redeems us, and thus we can do anything in the body and it doesn’t matter – Jesus has purified us. This is the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, where adultery and fornication didn’t make any difference because we were to be given spiritual bodies anyways, or that belief in Christ made sins of the body have no effect on them, as their minds were pure. An example of this is the alumbrados (the illuminated), a mystical sect of Christianity existing in Spain in the 15th-16th century:
The alumbrados held that the human soul can reach such a degree of perfection that it can even in the present life contemplate the essence of God and comprehend the mystery of the Trinity. All external worship, they declared, is superfluous, the reception of the sacraments useless, and sin impossible in this state of complete union with God. Persons in this state of impeccability could indulge their sexual desires and commit other sinful acts freely without staining their souls. (from Wikipedia)
This group was lightly investigated by the Spanish Inquisition. Ignatius of Loyola, before founding the Jesuit Order, was even accused of sympathizing with the group, though not punished.
From this history we can see that sin finds ways to justify itself, even if the person believes in Christ. This is the great deception that can come upon the Christian:
Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)
Little children, let no one deceive you. He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous. He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning. (1 John 3:7-8)
The law is a witness that we are righteous. It convicts us of sin (or The Holy Spirit uses the law to convict us of sin), so we go to Christ; and when we are walking with God, the law teaches us more of how God is. Every Christian admits that murder, adultery, etc. is wrong, so the question usually ends up coming to the Sabbath. The righteousness of the 4th Commandment is questioned; the motivation of the believer who wants to keep the Sabbath is questioned. A Christian who avoids sexual images is not called a legalist, but the man who wants to keep the Sabbath is. Why is this? It has to do with our rationalization of sin, and our putting ourself in the judgment seat and judging God and His law; deciding for ourselves which laws we want to follow and which laws we don’t want to follow, as well as how the law is to be interpreted. (see book As You Judge)
This mind that sets itself as a judge of the law, that looks at the law with skepticism and diminishes the claims of the law, is not the mind of Christ. Christ never doubted God’s law, for He knew the spirit of that law. Christ showed us the high righteousness of a life lived in perfect accordance to the law:
The LORD is well pleased for his righteousness' sake; he will magnify the law, and make it honourable. (Isaiah 42:21)
The Lord’s prohibitions and requirements are in perfect consistency with His moral law, the great law of righteousness, which is a matter of character rather than of form. The heart work will lead to the righteous actions. The law of Jehovah is exceedingly broad. Jesus in His lessons on the Mount plainly declared to His disciples that this holy law of God may be violated in even the thoughts and feelings and desires, as well as in the word and deed. (Letter 51, 1888)
When the claims of the law are made clear to the human, that even the thoughts are sinful, there comes great anxiety to the soul of the Christian. “Who then can be saved?” This conviction of sin, and the belief that Jesus can cure it through His word and through His teaching, is what propels the Christian forward in search of more truth, more grace, more doctrine – “the heart work will lead to the righteous actions.” But when the law is ignored, despised, misunderstood, misused – then there is no drive to study further, to move forward in light, to grow in grace. There is only human defined growth that is common to all men; they get older and feel they are more wise – but not in accordance to the wisdom of God. We get the dry creedal orthodox Christianity that we see today which, like aspirin, kills the spiritual conviction that would cause Christians to press with more urgency on the upward way.
But there are people out there who are not comfortable in the religious experience that they are born into. Though told to rest in the creed, their souls remain uneasy, and they want more. They drift from church to church, becoming non-denominational, and realize they are sinners. They read passages like Jesus saying that even lusting is sin and cannot find peace. It is men like this that need more light, purer doctrine, and greater truth. It is for men like this that we dig for treasure in God’s word and put our energy into sharing the great systematic message we have been given. For men like this, truth that is seen as worthless by the Pharisee is received as life-giving.
What happens if we leave such men to read the law under a false understanding of God’s character? We get men like the Atlanta Massage killer, who was so upset with himself and the world that he could not get over his sex addiction that he went and killed those whom he had hypersexualized, whom he could not stop lusting after.
According to the police, Long described his actions as being the result of a sex addiction that conflicted with his religious beliefs. Long had been a patron of two of the massage parlors, and saw them as sources of sexual temptation. Police records show 10 people were arrested at the two Atlanta massage businesses on prostitution charges, but none since 2013. Almost all arrests came in undercover stings where a police officer paid for a massage. All three targeted spas appeared on an online guide to brothels. Long claims to have initially thought about killing himself but instead decided to target the businesses to "help" others dealing with sex addiction. According to the Cherokee County Sheriff's Department, Long wanted to "eliminate the temptation" by targeting spas. (wikipedia)
The harsh, performance driven mind of this man reflect the character and government of the God He worshipped. What is the cure? To tell him he is a foolish legalist? Light is needed to drive away the darkness he is in! Does that light exist in the common sense of man where doctrine isn’t important? No, it is in Jesus, the way, the truth, and the life; and that way is strait and narrow.
Is Adventism cured of a wrong understanding of the Law?
Adventism, because it has the Sabbath, can look at Sunday Christians and feel that they are doing better than them – but anyone who is honest about their Adventist experience and is observing Adventism around them can see that the same underlying problem regarding the law is there, just it isn’t manifested around Sunday. Adventism still has man’s problem of man setting himself up as a judge of God’s law; if it didn’t have that problem, Jesus already would have come. In many places it is manifested in questioning God’s laws regarding diet. Others it is in demeaning His annual gatherings (an ironic one, seeing we berate Sunday Christians for ignoring the timing of when to worship, yet we will ignore the timing to worship regarding annual gatherings). Often it is in subtler ways, like in rejecting new light. In all of this, we are rejecting the Spirit of Christ, though we may do it in ignorance.
Modern men ask: Were men like Martin Luther sinners because they broke the 4th commandment? This is where ignorance comes up. God understands where men are at and what they are capable of understanding. It doesn’t excuse sin, but Martin Luther was coming out of deep darkness (Being less aware, he was less guilty).
Originally the Adventist church was ignorant to some extent of their rejection of the feasts, but when 1888 came and they rejected it, they became much more guilty. The more the Father-Son message is preached and rejected, the more hardened we become, and the more the rejection is not done from ignorance, but from wilful hatred of truth (Christ). Our rationalizations of why we don’t accept certain things becomes more and more set, until we think that our thoughts are God’s thoughts.
The psychology of why humans are like this is becoming more and more clear as God has given us more insight in this field of study. Men don’t want to learn more about God because, consciously or unconsciously, they realize that would mean more change in their life. We all have friends who want to be able to plead ignorance if they have to face God, and think they can do that by avoiding hearing truth.
Additionally, to actually correct someone else in their Christian walk means understanding very clearly our Christian walk, which is something we generally aren’t confident in. Correcting an Adventist or a Feast-keeper or a Character of God believer isn’t comfortable for most people, because it requires getting inside that belief and understanding it first. It means being confident and certain in your own Christian walk, which most people aren’t, regardless of all the talk of assurance of salvation. If we were so confident in our relationship with Jesus, we wouldn’t feel so threatened by doctrines different to ours; we wouldn’t feel the need to cling so determinedly to our creed and to our group.
I believe that, just as the Gnostics went two ways – extreme asceticism and extreme liberty to sin – so do modern Christians. Either they don’t really care about doctrine and Jesus is enough; or they are fiercely creedal and want other Christians to teach their way. What makes some go one way and others the other way? I think it has to do with the culture and worldview you grow up with, and with your relationship and understanding of power. In a world run by secularism and anything goes, where ideas are allowed to be free and aren’t seen as that dangerous, most people will tend to not care about doctrine. But as people start to realize the seriousness of the situation we are in, that ideas ARE affecting the world and how we live and where we are headed, there will be more fighting over doctrine and using politics and power to uphold your own position.
Men will surely set up their laws to counterwork the laws of God. They will seek to compel the consciences of others, and in their zeal to enforce these laws they will oppress their fellow men. DA 763.2
The warfare against God's law, which was begun in heaven, will be continued until the end of time. Every man will be tested. Obedience or disobedience is the question to be decided by the whole world. All will be called to choose between the law of God and the laws of men. Here the dividing line will be drawn. There will be but two classes. Every character will be fully developed; and all will show whether they have chosen the side of loyalty or that of rebellion. DA 763.3
As the truth becomes more clear in our character and in our communication and in our fellowship, the harder it will be to reject it. Rationalizations of false traditions will become more rigid and dogmatic. The meekness and humility of Christians that allows for others to think for themselves will steadily be replaced by a desperate, domineering Christianity that sees force and submission as necessary to save this world (rather than truth and love through freedom of conscience). Misplaced urgency and passion on the part of those who misunderstand God’s character will cause them to persecute those who disagree with their beliefs.
At the heart of this problem is the need to perform for God to be considered worthy of God’s love. The consequence of this is that we set ourselves up as a judge of whether we are worthy (not whether God says we are worthy), and then we judge others to whether they are worthy. The way to escape our fear of judgment is to come into the light, but instead the world will do this by killing those are convicting them of sin.
Finally, let us look at how Ellen White understands 1 Corinthians 3:14-15 –
To all who are building for God, the apostle addresses words of encouragement and warning: “If any man's work abide, which he have built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire.” The Christian teacher who faithfully presents the word of truth, leading his converts to holiness of heart and life, is bringing precious material to the foundation; and in the kingdom of God he will be honored as a wise builder. He who neglects to teach the truth in its purity, will gather converts who are not holy in heart and life. He is bringing material that will not stand the test. In the day of God he will suffer loss. Though it is possible that those who have spent the best of life in teaching error may, by repentance and faith, be saved at last, yet their work is lost. Their life has failed of the good results that might have been secured. Souls have gone down to ruin, who, by a faithful presentation of the truth, might have been saved. Says the apostle, “Let every man take heed how he buildeth."" SKETCHES FROM THE LIFE OF PAUL, PAGE 160
“To all who are building for God…” Is not God calling all Christians to build for Him? It doesn’t mean they need to be pastors or doctrinal teachers, but all Christians are called to do the work of saving other souls. Part of that work is studying God’s word and God’s will to know best HOW to save souls. If we have this love for others in our hearts, this will to serve others at the core of our lives, we can be saved even if we have taught some error.
It is the Christian who only cares about his own salvation, who cares little for serving others and doesn’t see himself as “building for God,” who will be lost because of the false teachings of those he follows. Is this God’s fault? God has told man to join in the work of saving and warning the world for the worker’s own good, and when we accept Jesus for mainly selfish reasons and don’t live up to the truth or carry the cross or preach the message, then we risk being lost and misled. When we DO take up the responsibility of being a teacher, to be a priest (which we are called to be 1 Peter 2:9), then we consequently draw nearer to God and spend more time studying.
I can even use myself as an example. When I am just thinking of my own salvation, I don’t study the Bible so much, neither do I pray much. But when I am working for God, when I feel a responsibility to answer questions, I study much more, and consequently I am BLESSED much more because I spend more time with God and His word and thinking of heavenly things. When I teach error, in time I may see that it is not bearing fruit, and then I learn from it and repent from it. In this sense the text in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 is encouraging.
...work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. (Phillipians 2:12)
Of course, not all are called to be pastors of the flock. We do believe in the Divine Pattern though, of every person being a teacher in their sphere of influence. Even a high schooler, who is to learn from his teachers, is called to be a co-teacher and a positive influence on the younger students in his school. So are older siblings to seek out wisdom so as to guide their younger siblings.
Azadeh, in asking sincere questions as she has and drawing on her experience, shows that she is taking responsibility for herself and for those that she may have influence with. This is something we all should learn from, and strive to do, asking for wisdom from God, who “gives to all men liberally” (James 1:5) and “press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14)
Many men subconsciously are preparing their responses to God for their own failings in the judgment day. They will blame the lies they were taught, their lack of education, their responsibilities they had to the world. The Holy Spirit has convicted them that something in their walk is not right, and rather than praying and seeking for answers, they comfort themselves that if they are wrong, it is the fault of their teachers, and God will excuse them because at least they still believe in Jesus. This is a deception, and in the resurrection they will be shown that they have not believed in Jesus, because when He came to them to call them to Him and to live in them more fully, they have rejected Him. Is this the fault of their teachers? No, it is the fault of those who followed the teachers, who misunderstood what role the teacher was to play for them in their Christian walk.
All this I speak as a warning to myself too. God help me that I don’t rationalize my sins, nor get atonement that I am better and more knowledgeable than others. Let us keep growing every day, asking God, like the disciples, to increase our faith. (Luke 17:5)