In this most interesting book, Judged by the Gospel: A Review of Adventism, Robert Brinsmead calls Adventism to consider the gospel. This book reflects the author’s personal spiritual pilgrimage, and was “written to bring my own faith under further judgment of the gospel” (p.8).
I gather, therefore, that Judged by the Gospel is designed to lovingly challenge those in “traditional Adventism.” However, its appeal, I believe, extends beyond Adventism to all evangelicals: “the gospel is a clear and certain light which must call all that we teach and do into serious and radical question” (p.7).
In my remarks on this work, I will pursue matters in the order that they appear in the book, sometimes letting Mr. Brinsmead’s words speak for themselves.
What Lies Behind the “Central Article” of Protestantism?
Brinsmead (hereafter, RDB) states, “Luther declared that justification by faith is ‘the article on which the church stands or faIls’” (p.7). However, the significance of justification by faith can only be properly comprehended on the presupposition of a biblical anthropology. This is borne out in the order Paul follows in Romans. Before opening up justification by faith (3:2lff.), he first discloses the awful plight of mankind in sin (1:18-3:20). Thus, Luther’s remark above must be connected with the sentiments he expressed to Erasmus at the conclusion of his ‘The Bondage of the Will’:
‘Moreover, I give you hearty praise and commendation on this further account — that you alone, in contrast with all others, have attacked the real thing, that is, the essential issue. You have not wearied me with those extraneous issues about the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences and such like — trifles, rather than issues — in respect of which almost all to date have sought my blood (though without success); you, and you alone, have seen the hinge on which all turns, and aimed at the vital spot’ (trans. by Packer and Johnston [Fleming Revell, 1957], p.319).
Justification by faith answers the need of men enslaved to sin. Thus, to seek a biblical perspective on justification requires also a biblical outlook on man. One cannot arrive at the wonder of justification without first having arrived at the biblical presentation of the utter depravity of the heart, and resulting inability to move toward God — “the hinge on which all turns.”
All Other Issues Arise Out of Our View of the Gospel
“Paul wrote on a wide variety of subjects, including spiritual gifts, Christian liberty, the Jew-Gentile problem, the church and ethics . . . . the gospel was so overwhelmingly central to them that everything else they discussed was colored by the gospel. All else was just an extension of their understanding of the gospel” (p.1).
The Nature of the Gospel: Here, RDB makes the point that “the theme of the Bible and the pulsating heart of the New Testament is Jesus Christ. It is not Sabbatarianism, not vegetarianism . . . Jesus Christ alone is the transcendent good news of the apostles” (p.21). One point emerges in RDB’s thinking which I believe needs to be clarified.
He says, “by His resurrection [He] restored the race to favor with God . . . . God paid our debt in the death of His Son, and in His heart forgave the sins of all men . . . . God has achieved His goal for the human race . . . . Here [at the Cross] God arraigned the whole world to judgment in the person of its Representative” (pp.23,24,30,63).
It seems to me that the headships of Adam and Christ are concrete. Yet this position makes Adam’s imputation pervasively effective (all whom he represented actually fell in him), but presents Christ’s representation as ultimately ineffective (all whom He allegedly represented are not finally saved). Why this inconsistency? Why does Adam’s misdeed reach all his race, but Christ’s obedience not reach the entire race? Is the imputation of Adam’s sin more effective than the imputation of Christ’s righteousness?
The Scripture teaches that just as Adam’s fall resulted in the condemnation of the entire race, so Christ’s obedience results in salvation for everyone He actually represented (Rom.5:12-19; 8:29-33; John 6:37-40, 10:15, 17:2; Acts 20:28; Eph.5:23; 1 Cor.15:20-23; 1 John 3:16). I would like to see an exegetical rationale that explains why the concrete representation of all men by Christ fails to result in the salvation of every man — the Adamic fall did not fail to extend to every man.
Christ indeed represented an innumerable host given to Him by the Father from every tribe, kindred and tongue in the world, and at the Passover meal announced, “this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matt.26:28; cf. lsa.53:10-12 — “he was numbered with the transgressors; and He bore the sin of many”).
In pages 35-116, RDB exposes the fallacy of “The Adventist Sanctuary Doctrine.” He points out that “building a doctrine on symbolic inferences in Holy Scripture is risky business. Those who resort to such ‘proof-texting’ only emphasize the weakness of their arguments . . . . Basing a doctrine on a type is risky business and contrary to sound hermeneutics” (pp.38,47).
Naturally, the false Sanctuary doctrine of Adventism has hindered them from grasping justification by faith (p.49). The “investigative judgment” has always been a pillar doctrine in Adventism, and RDB has become unable to “accept the traditional Adventist doctrine of an investigative judgment beginning in 1844” (p.55).
As RDB shows the fallacies of crucial Adventist doctrines, he points out an important principle: “the only proper way to study the Bible is to lay aside all preconceived opinions, even Adventist ones, and objectively examine what the Bible says” (p.68).
Pages 73-90 demonstrate the arbitrariness of the Adventist view that 1844 has unique prophetic significance — in some ways more significance than the date of Christ’s death (pp.107,352,359).
The chapter on “literalistic exactness” (pp.91-103) challenges the common idea that Biblical prophecy must be taken in a wooden, literalistic manner.
“The Gospel and Ellen C. White” (pp.119-200)
In this section, RDB tackles the “inspired” leader of Adventism, and shows the fallacies of the legends of Mrs. White’s “inerrancy,” “literary independence,” “impeccability,” and “uniqueness.” While Adventism tells “outsiders” that they test Mrs. White by the Bible (pp.128-129), “the average Adventist does not think that the Bible is clear or easy to understand, but Ellen White is plain. She makes the Bible understandable” (p.121). “Adventsts read the Bible through the eyes of Ellen White and aspire to an ethical ideal expressed in her writings” (p.122). This leads, suggests RDB, to “the cult of Ellen White” (pp.123,190).
Thus a continual problem in Adventism has been to “not settle theological questions by asking, ‘What does the Bible say,’ but by asking, ‘What does Mrs. White say?” (p.l29). RDB suggests that “a mature Adventism surely cannot sanction such a sectarian and esoteric use of Scripture” (p.141).
Mrs. White made vegetarianism a rule, but “vegetarianism is nowhere imposed upon either Jews or Christians” (p.141). “Mrs. White was a great temperance crusader. But her attempt to prove that the Bible forbids all alcoholic beverages is dogmatically superficial and constitutes a biased use of Scripture . . . . The Bible forbids excess and drunkenness. While it speaks of the danger of strong drink, it does not absolutely forbid it” (p. 142).
The legend has been perpetrated by Adventism that Ellen White received her teachings “directly from God,” but the evidence is now clear that she was dependent on a number of books, and often copied the words of other authors directly, without any acknowledgement of her sources. (cf. the “Appendix” to this book, pp.361-383, where her words are compared to those of seven other authors).
Also, unfortunately, Adventism has ended up defending the idea that Mrs. White was incapable of making “even a trivial mistake” (p.177). And, as her importance to Adventism grew, Mrs. White’s actions and words contributed to this notion (p.173). May we learn from this not to esteem our theological heroes to the degree that we feel compelled to cover up their mistakes (p.157).
This defensive attitude of Mrs. White led to pride. “But in Mrs. White’s entire public life of over seventy years, it is almost impossible to find one example in which she acknowledged that she had done wrong or made a mistake” (p.179). “I have also come to the painful conclusion that Seventh-day Adventism is notorious for the way it has copied one of Mrs. White’s vices . . . . Adventism is never disposed to acknowledge its mistakes — doctrinal or otherwise” (p.179).
As the elect of God, humility is to be our clothing. May all of us — especially church leaders — examine our hearts, and plead with God to grant us teachable, pliable spirits — willing to swallow our pride and acknowledge that “we are sorry” for our mistakes.
“Excursus on the Prophetic Spirit” (pp.195-200).
Here RDB points out that there have always been prophetic voices in the church, calling the body back to Christ and the Scriptures. Historically, the religious establishment, satisfied with the status quo, has opposed the prophets. “The church needs theologians of vision who are moved by a prophetic spirit, men who are not mere puppets to an all-powerful religious establishment which can tolerate no voice of dissent” (p.200). Surely, RDB must be regarded as a prophetic voice — accompanied with imperfections! — calling out to Adventism and “outsiders” to come to the gospel. “The Gospel and Ethics”(pp.203-253)
RDB submits that recapturing the gospel will lead us to “An Ethic of Grateful Celebration,” “An Ethic of Faith and Love,” “An Ethic of Freedom and Responsibility,” and “An Ethic of Forgiveness.” I regard this section as the high point of the book. My heart was absolutely thrilled by “An Ethic of Grateful Celebration.”
In many cases the Bible is approached as “a rule book on human behaviour” (p.207). Proof-texts are isolated to prove “non-drinking, non-smoking, no jewellery wearing, vegetarianism (or at least no pork eating), tithe paying, Sabbath keeping and church organisation” (p.207). But “the Bible has no independent interest in ethics . . . . The Bible is written as history. It is the story of God’s redemptive acts. Biblical ethics are not artificially attached to this story. They are embedded in the story itself
When biblical ethics are removed from the context of redemptive history, they cease to be biblical ethics . . . As far as the Bible is concerned, ethics have no independent value and no meaning outside of the saving deeds of God” (p.209).
RDB shows that the Exodus event was the central redemptive act for Israel, and out of that event came the ethical demand upon the covenant people (pp.209-211): “[redemptive act:] I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. [Moral imperative:] You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exod.20:2-3).
The Red Sea deliverance was not an end in itself. It was a type of the future exodus to be carried out in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Thus, the reference point for Christian obedience is not the type, but the saving work of Christ, with pointed focus on Golgotha: “God’s final act in Christ reflects the covenantal order of life to us” (p.212). Hence, our obedience is carried out in grateful celebration of the redemptive act that secured our freedom (John 15:12-13; Gal.5:1).
“[Paul’s] appeals on how to live are made on the basis of what God has done for us in Christ. It is in view of God’s gospel mercies that we are to present our lives as a living sacrifice to God (Rom.12:1-3) . . . . Paul virtually never appeals to the law — ‘Thou shalt not.’ When he demands certain behaviour of the church, he appeals instead to the holy history of Christ and from that standpoint then makes his ethical appeal” (p.213).
“Ethic of Guilt”
RDB makes a very significant point by observing that if our behaviour is not a grateful reaction to Christ’s manifestation in history for us, we run the risk of falling into “an ethic of guilt” (p.214). Listen to these powerful
I fear that far too much Adventism is an ethic of guilt. People are motivated by guilt to keep the Sabbath, to pay tithes, to be loyal to the denomination, to eat the right food, to eschew jewellery, to avoid worldly amusements . . . . The motivation of guilt will produce results . . . . The Pauline Epistles do not present a motivation of guilt but a motivation of grace.
Unless a religious group gives free course to the gospel, and unless its pulpits ring with the liberating proclamation of grace, the religious group will become a religious slave camp . . . . The greatest instrument of coercion in traditional Adventism is guilt. The two greatest motivational forces in the world are guilt and grace. Where the gospel is not paramount, guilt is the instrument by which we motivate ourselves and others . . . . Guilt will drive a missionary to compass land and sea to make a single convert. Rome has learned to harness the power of guilt . . . . Rome has always complained that justification by faith alone severs the nerve of the moral imperative. But she is really concerned with people who are no longer guilty and can therefore no longer be manipulated.
If the Adventist community does not live by the gospel, it is guilt which makes people keep the Sabbath, and pay tithes.
Sermons which exhort people to conform to certain behaviour are generally intended to make people guilty enough to elicit the desired response (pp.214-215, 291-292).
Christianity is not a guilt-trip; it is a walk of faith and freedom because God has fully forgiven us for the sake of His Son. He remembers our sins no more. People captured by the consciousness of their freedom in Christ cannot be manipulated. This is what religious establishments fear most: justified people, no longer in bondage to elemental spirits, but constrained by the love of Christ (Col.2:8; 2 Cor.5:14-15).
The chapter on “An Ethic of Faith and Love” is excellent. However, I submit that in light of the new exodus, we are obliged to connect what God has joined together. The new covenant, ratified by Christ’s blood, brings with it a “new commandment” (John 13:34-35; 15:12-13). This “new commandment” is rooted in the redemptive event of the slaughtered covenant Lamb.
We are thus to love “even as” Christ loved us sacrificially at Calvary. “The law of Christ” (love), Gal.6:2, is not fulfilled by keeping days (Gal.4:10-11) and eating certain kinds of food (Rom.14:17), but specifically by “bearing one another’s burdens” (in contrast to bearing the Mosaic system the false teachers were seeking to impose on believers — a burden no man can bear, (Acts 15:10, Gal.5:1).
I believe RDB’s presentation would have been strengthened if he had mentioned the centrality of the “new commandment” in the new age, and its immediate connection to the new exodus.
In the chapter on “An Ethic of Freedom and Responsibility,” RDB observes that “the new freedom of the gospel is more difficult to handle than living by a checklist” (p.234). The easy route is to have someone or some organisation tell you how to live. But the Christian is free from man-made rules, but even free to submit to them in connection with ministry to others (p.235; cf. Col.2:8; 1 Cor.9:19-22).
As compared to the host of regulations given to Israel, the church is given general principles in the New Testament. “There is no absolute law on when, where and how to send children to school. There is no absolute law on when, how and what to eat. . . . There is no absolute law on where to live. There is no absolute law on when, where and how to pay tithes. In fact, as far as the New Testament is concerned, there is no absolute law on tithing at all . . . . The gospel restores to the believers the freedom to act like a person created in the image of God rather than to act like a robot who obeys a mechanical rule” (pp.241-242).
“The Gospel and the Church” (pp.257-296)
“The gospel — or lack of it — always determines the kind of religious community any people will form” (p.257). Post-apostolic history quickly moved away from the priesthood of believers, to a hierarchy of church bureaucracy (p.265). I believe George Wolfgang Forell makes astute observations about the tragic shift from mutual ministry to unilateral dominion in the early church:
‘Ethical guidance for people recently converted to Christianity and likely to bring a pervasive pagan attitude to this new life was offered at first by a polyform ministry of grace, reflected in the New Testament. But as time went by moral authority was increasingly focused in an ordered ministry of bishops and deacons . . . . the institution most effective in containing the threats to the unity of the nascent Christian movement was the gradually evolving office of bishop . . . . Through the office of the bishop the shape of the Christian life is determined and the masses recently brought into the Christian movement are conformed to Christ’. (History of Christian Ethics, Vol.1 [Augsburg Pub. House, 1979, pp.39- 40).
I personally have come to the conviction that the greatest practical need facing the church today is a recovery of the “polyform ministry of grace.” It is quite apparent that we must apply the implications of the gospel to the one-man focus that abounds everywhere in order for the priesthood of believers to again be revived. (cf. Robert Girard, ‘Brethren, Hang Together,’ – ‘Reviving the Priesthood,’ [Zondervan, pp.123-133); Robert Banks: ‘Paul’s Idea of Community — The Early House Churches in Their Historical Setting’. [Eerdmans, 1980, pp.62-112).
RDB points out the Roman Catholic concept of the church, in which “the hierarchy is the church, and people remain in this church only so long as they submit to the papacy . . . . the ministry were not in the congregation, but above the congregation” (P.266). He goes on to show how Adventism is remarkably similar to this system with its “Hierarchism,” ‘‘Institutionalism,” “Authoritarianism,” “Triumphalism,” and ‘‘Ecclesiolatry” (attributes equally attributable in varying degrees to all religious organisations) [pp.271-292).
The Reformation View of the Church
I believe RDB’s presentation of the Reformation idea of the church (pp.267-270) fails to give the full picture. For example, he says that “Luther had no faith in political intrigue, in military might or in the aid of civil power” (p.197). Luther may have said that on paper, but as time elapsed, his ministry revealed capitulation to the German princes (cf. Kurt Aland: ‘Four Reformers’ [Augsburg Pub. House, 1979, pp.30,48); Leonard Verduin: ‘The Reformers and Their Stepchildren’ (pp.18-19).
The whole Reformation movement was connected to the ungodly union of church and state, and thus to “the use of the sword against the godless” (Aland, p.39). This fact had catastrophic effects on the Reformation view of the church.
Again, RDB states that “with the Reformers the church was essentially a community” (p.269). I cannot agree with this. Because of the territorial conception of the church that emerged everywhere the Reformation spread, it was impossible for the community dimension to be a reality. How could it be when the boundaries of the “church” coincided with the boundaries of the state? It was among the Anabaptists that the church as a separate believing community was realised.
For Zwingli, Luther and Calvin to opt for a believer’s church, separate from the civil domain, would have required them to repudiate twelve centuries of tradition since Constantine (Verduin, p.19). This they did not do, and for this reason the Anabaptists were a persecuted people. The Reformation carried on the territorial conception of the church perpetrated by Catholicism — they only put Lutheranism or Calvinism in the saddle instead of the Pope (Verduin, p.36). RDB should have had a chapter entitled, “The Anabaptist View of the Church.”
Again, RDB says that “Luther restored the idea of the servant nature of the church. It was no longer to be the proud, triumphalistic church which demanded submission, but the poor, suffering church which wielded no power but the power of the gospel” (p.269). Wrong again. It was the Anabaptists who captured the suffering nature of the church, not the Reformers. How could those who sided with the power of the sword to enforce a state-religion maintain the stance of a “servant” church?
As the Reformation blossomed, the Anabaptists pleaded with Luther to begin a believer’s church, but to no avail. A state church cannot be a suffering church, for it rests on the arm of the sword; a state church cannot be a servant church, for it must resort to coercion and fear (cf. Lord Acton, “The Protestant Theory of Persecution,” Essays on Freedom and Power [World Pub. Co., 1948, pp. 113-140).
Finally, RDB says that the Protestant Reformation resulted in “the triumph of the priesthood of all believers over the religious hierarchy” (p.293). Yes and no. Certainly the priesthood was restored in some important ways. “But they [the Reformers] retained a modified version of the clerical system of ministry in the church” (Robert Girard, ‘Brethren, Hang Together,’ p.127).
The vision of the priesthood which emerged in the Reformation was essentially individualistic, not corporate. That is, they emphasised that each believer had direct access to Christ and the Scriptures, and did not need intermediaries. However, the New Testament presentation of the priesthood relates primarily to the functioning of the priests in their mutual relationships with one another. The focus on the “minister” in Protestant churches in many ways took the place of the focus on the “priest” in Catholicism. Thus, in mainline Protestantism, the priesthood of believers still ended up being stifled by some form of authority figure(s).
RDB notes that “Luther declared that all believers alike have the authority to preach, baptise, administer the Supper and judge doctrine” (p. 269). That sounds good on paper, but where did he ever allow these things to be practised? It was the Anabaptists who carried out such ideas to the chagrin of the state-church authorities. And what poor believer would have the courage to question the “Doctors,” especially if civil punishment might be his portion for issuing dissent from the state religion?
Confidence versus “law”
I believe that the discrepancy between what the Reformers put on paper and what they did in practice, can be accounted for by noting their view of Christians. They asserted the freedom of the priesthood, but they did not really believe that the priesthood would use that freedom responsibly, so they felt compelled to “hedge” the priesthood with various “laws.”
For example, in discussing the use of the law for believers, John Calvin asserts that “the law is to the flesh like a whip to an idle balky ass, to arouse it to work” (Institutes, 2:7:12; quoted by Michael D.R. Irvin, “The Ethics of John Calvin,” Crux, Sept., 1980, p.3). Is it proper to view the Christian as a “balky ass” that must be whipped into obedience? Paul had confidence that Christians would act responsibly (Philemon 21; 2 Thess.3:4; GaI.5:10; Rom.15:14; 2 Cor.2:3); he did not reason, “if you leave those Christians alone, there is no telling what they will do.”
“Marks” of the Church
Further, it seems to me that the Reformation definition of the church was really incomplete. The “true marks” were said to be: (1) the Word of God properly preached; (2) discipline properly administered; and (3) the “sacraments” properly administered. But could not these three characteristics be technically present, yet the church be filled with death? Is not the mark Jesus gave to His churches that of fervent love to one another, and that by this men would know we are His disciples (John 13:34-35)?
It appears that the Reformation churches were heavy on outward marks, but short on the spiritual mark of mutual love among the brethren. The aspects of community, functioning priesthood, suffering and servant-hood were revived among the Anabaptists in the 16th century, not among the Reformers. “The End of Traditional Adventism” (pp.303-311)
RDB concludes that “Adventism is now confronted with the distressing reality that every unique aspect of its theology is without biblical support” (p.310). He therefore calls this religious body to leave their Old Testament framework and embrace the gospel.
“Some Reflections on Adventism” (pp.313-332)
The “confrontation with the gospel” (p.313) that has arisen in Adventism was largely spearheaded by RDB since roughly 1970. Many have suggested that Adventism is being “shaken.” RDB believes that “Adventism will never be the same again” (p.313), that “a new Adventism is emerging,” and that “we now see the emergence of a truly Protestant Adventism” (pp.313-314).
Given the commitment (so far) of the Adventist hierarchy to maintain the traditional party-line, there is no telling what may happen to Adventism in the coming years. It is doubtful that they will kindly receive RDB’s call to embrace the gospel, for they cannot embrace it without scrapping their essentially Old Covenant religion (p.16).
The Sabbath: Fulfilled Type or Ongoing Observance?
Obviously, the confrontation of Adventism with the gospel will have implications for how the Sabbath is viewed (cf. p.219). The New Testament informs us that the Sabbath was a shadow; Christ is the body (Col.2:17). Therefore, we are not to allow ourselves to be judged by this aspect of a past age (Col .2:16). Why continue an institution that has passed away with the coming of Christ?
RDB observes that Adventists “have had to revert to the Old Testament sanctuary, illustrating that we are more comfortable with the Old Testament shadow than with the New Testament reality” (p.40). Must this not be applied also to the Sabbath? Further, RDB says, “the old forms are inadequate to express the divine reality” (p.47). Then why continue the old form of the Sabbath when the reality of Christ has come? “Christ is now Lord of the Sabbath.
We should not run to Moses to find out how to keep the Sabbath, but to the gospel of Christ.” (p.233). It seems to me that if you go to the gospel, you will find no positive instruction on how to keep a day, but you will find negative warnings about continuing a shadow. (cf. D. Vincent Price, “Searching For the Imperative — Interaction with Lord’s Day Argumentation,” Baptist Reformation Review, Vol.9, #4, pp.12-31). Enjoying God’s rest by faith in Christ, and labouring to enter the ‘sabbatismos’ that awaits the people of God fulfil the Old Testament shadow (Matt.11:28-30; Heb.4:9-11).
Why, then, would one wish to continue observing the shadow, when the reality is Christ? We do not continue to offer animal sacrifices after the sacrifice of Christ. Do we really believe that gospel fulfilment brings an end to continuing the type?
This is a challenging book. One thing should not happen as non-Adventists read this work, and that is to throw darts at Adventism. For just as the gospel confronts Adventism, it likewise confronts Lutherans, Baptists, Charismatics, Methodists, and any body else. The goal of this book is not that Adventism should be mocked, but that it should leave its legalism and find freedom in Christ — and this applies across the board to any evangelical body. We manifest pride by pointing to the sliver in another’s eye, while passing over the log in our own eye. The gospel judges all, and passes over none.
The language in this book is firm, but spoken out of loving concern. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Prov.27:6): “Dedicated Adventists are grinding themselves to death under the crushing burden of living up to Ellen White . . . . They are like dried-up old prunes with a distorted view of life, no sense of humour and a bad conscience . . . . Sola fide [faith alone] is as popular in the halls of traditional Adventism as is a pork chop in Loma Linda [an Adventist centre] . . . A gospel community will not sanction the spirit of persecution which has reigned in traditional Adventism . . . . The way the system has stifled the voice of dissent and bludgeoned many of its creative people is as black as hell” (pp.240,325,330).
May the badge of true Christianity, fervent love among the brethren, reign in these days as we confront one another with the gospel.
by Jon Zens