Editor’s note: We are using this article with permission from ReachOut Trust which first published it in their e-newsletter. Author Robin Brace grew up in the old-style Worldwide Church of God and uses the term “adventist” in the generic sense meaning any and all of the sects and cults that have roots in William Miller’s apocalyptic movement of the 19th century.
How does one transition from a legalistic sect to normal Christianity? When one learns the gospel and leaves an adventist sect such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, Christadelphians, or the old-style Worldwide Church of God, he or she often feels adrift, unable to understand or even to evaluate how to find a Christian church to attend. Moreover, the “former’s” cultic worldview creates an invisible barrier to mutual understanding between the new believer and the Christians around him.
In order to understand how disorienting the Christian world seems at first to these spiritual refugees, it is essential first to understand the legalism of these groups. The legalistic adventist sects such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, Christadelphians, and the old-style Worldwide Church of God, may vary in actual doctrine, but they have many areas in common. First, they all share a common root: they are products of the adventist worldview developed by William Miller in 19th-century United States. This Millerite Adventism derived from a base in Jewish apocalypticism and in the fanaticism of such men as Thomas Muntzer and Joachim of Ffiore.
The excesses of such men would likely not have been able to “take off” in the Old World dominated by the theological legacies of the Reformation and of men such as Tyndale, Luther, and Calvin who sought, sometimes with several hours of prayer each day, to make the Bible accessible and to bring out the full biblical teaching of such points as justification, atonement, and salvation. At the same time, however, the struggle to establish Protestant doctrines in a Europe which had been dominated by Catholicism often resulted in rigid controls and in persecution of people who had differing views.
New Frontiers, New Freedoms
One cannot stress enough the desire of the early Americans to be free of religious control after having suffered often in the Old World because of its excesses. This hunger for freedom led to a powerful sense of independence and a resulting desire to rediscover Christian community and experience. Much good came from this pursuit of a more personal Christianity, but it also led to an atmosphere in which idiosyncratic beliefs were often tolerated in ways they would not have been in the Old World.
By the 1840s, overlapping historically with the early development of the Mormon religion, William Miller sought to refocus Christianity away from Christ’s atoning work on the cross and instead preached an envisaged, imminent second coming supported by his interpretations of Bible prophecy (especially that found in Daniel and Revelation). He was drawing on strands of sensational teaching which were in no way new. Similar arguments had been attempted before in the Old World but had not prospered because of the wide accessibility of more deeply grounded biblical theology. The New World, however, was determined to be “open” religiously; this American, individualistic freedom assisted the new, exciting adventist worldview and provided an environment in which it could flourish.
All the “adventist” cults and sects—which are American phenomena—can be traced to the legacy of Miller. It matters not whether we speak of Joseph Smith, Ellen White, Hiram Edson, Joseph Bates, Charles Taze Russell (who became the first leader of the Watchtower Society—later, Jehovah’s Witnesses—in 1896), or Herbert W. Armstrong who founded what became the Worldwide Church of God in 1933—these theological mavericks who posed as Christians all reflected America’s individualistic freedom and bore the marks of William Miller’s “gospel”, replacing the finished work of Jesus on the cross with the alarm: “Jesus is coming; get ready!”
Miller’s new approach had proven to be so popular that by 1844, F.S. Mead calculated in his A Handbook of Denominations in the United States, p 20, “… there were between 50,000 and 100,000 adventists in North America.”
Miller’s doomsday legacy continues to evolve; David Koresh, of Waco, Texas fame, was also an adventist, originally of the Seventh-day Adventist sect, later leaving to pursue his own highly idiosyncratic theological path.
Today, Miller is quite famous for his date-setting for Christ’s return based upon his understanding of the apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelation. Inevitably, however, his dates failed, and many gave up adventism; others went into mental asylums, and some committed suicide. They had given up everything, even leaving their crops unharvested, because they believed Jesus would come and take them away.
Others, however, were not deterred by Miller’s failed prophecies. These adventists refused to accept the fact that they had believed a lie and had discounted the clear teaching of Jesus: “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mk. 13:32). This group never gave up Miller’s approach of refocusing adventists away from the cross and toward the second coming. As time passed, their methods included prophecy, legalism in various forms, and, inevitably, all the pet theories of each of the founders of the sects that emerged from those persistent Millerite faithful.
Miller, like the founders of almost every adventist cult who would follow him, had little deep knowledge of the word of God and had not been a long-term practicing Christian. He had never studied Greek or Hebrew, and it is known that he only used the Bible and Cruden’s Concordance in his work. He was unaccountable and marched to his own theological drum.
In fact, all the subsequent sect-founding adventists followed a similar “me-only” approach, believing that God was revealing new truth—only to them! They even rejected the new understandings of other adventists. In short, their Milleresque methods became notable for their sublime senses of self-sufficiency!
These men and women had never been masters of even one of the biblical languages in which the inspired texts were originally written. Neither were they prepared to check their conclusions against the more time-honored conclusions of men such as Luther, Calvin, Augustine, and others. Consequently, it has been easy for adventists to hold their ground, since they have never felt the need to defend their teachings against the more thoroughly biblically-grounded teachings of the Christian world. In adventism itself, typically, the people are held in subjection to various charismatic leaders and do not dare pose questions. Further, most such sects have painted a picture (also very much part of adventism) that they alone have all truth and that those who hold other biblical views are the tools of Satan!
Mainstream Christianity upholds justification by faith alone, while no adventist cult or sect can wholly endorse this core doctrine. After all, if one is finally justified—made right with God—because of holding to the sufficiency of the gospel, then why the need for adventism—any brand of it—with its morass of additional teachings? On the bottom line, the issue really is this simple.
Of course, some adventist groups do carefully attempt to uphold the bona fide Christian position in their publications. However, as every former adventist knows, this public facade is not reality for those within the group. In fact, many adventist “gospels” say yes, Christ died for us, but it is not enough just to believe this fact; one also has to—and at this point, each adventist sect introduces its own legalism.
Before we discuss what the Bible says about the pivotal matter of justification, however, let me explain a quick way of identifying adventism’s essential flaws.
The Apostle Paul wrote Galatians and Romans (especially Galatians) to counteract the influence of Judaizers. Judaizers taught that accepting Christ’s sacrifice was insufficient to save, that there was a requirement to hold on to facets of old covenant law and practice. In hotly rejecting their claims, however, Paul produces some of his strongest language, even saying,
“As we have said before, so now I say again; if anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:9).
No serious student of the Bible is in any doubt as to what Paul means. The judaizing teachers did accept Christ, but they believed that there also existed a requirement to observe old covenant law. Their teaching called into question the means of justification.
Paul reacts strongly in his ever-vigorous defense of the true gospel. Sects and cults may allow themselves the luxury of quoting odd verses from the New Testament in order to back up their points (proof-texting), but serious Bible students insist on looking at entire books (such as Galatians) in context—being careful not to impose their own views. Just what is Paul saying in this book? The answer is clear in the English translations, and it’s even more clear in the Greek. Paul condemns those who teach a “gospel” that adds any requirement to belief in Christ’s finished work.
While the background to Galatians is incipient legalism from a Jewish stance, the background to Paul’s epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians is early Gnosticism, one of the first heresies which entered the Church. The gnostics believed that man could not directly approach God, but that God had to be approached through intermediaries. The designated intermediaries were angels, and they, too, had to be worshiped. In fact, some of these gnostic ideas were starting to affect some Christians, hence Paul’s comment:
“Let no one disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, taking his stand on visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind” (Col. 2:18).
While the Galatian heresy added legal requirements to faith in Christ for justification, the gnostic heresies added spiritual beings and experiences to the formula. These early heretical influences always attacked the pure gospel teaching of justification, but Paul was vigilant to challenge all ideas that suggested Christ alone was insufficient to save.
The Gospel: Legalism v. Grace
What, then, is the biblical teaching on justification? Can Christians be clear about it?
The answer is Yes. Scripture makes justification abundantly clear because it is the core of the gospel! If we are to escape from the influences of legalism, it is vital that we grasp the gospel fundamentals.
The New Testament defines the substance of the gospel on several occasions. See 1 Corinthians 15:1-14; 1 Corinthians 2:1-2; Romans 10:9-10; Acts 16:30-31, and Romans 4:24-25. We may also consider Paul’s defense before Agrippa in Acts 26:1-23. All these texts, and others too, define the message of the gospel which Paul preached, a message centered on the cross and what Christ achieved there. This is the message of the gospel; Jesus died on the cross for our sin; He was buried, and on the third day He rose from death. Therefore, repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ—the Kingdom is at hand! Those accepting and trusting Christ’s sacrifice are brought into Christ’s Kingdom at that moment (Col. 1:13) and sealed with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13-14). This is not the place for a full rebuttal of the common adventist belief that “The Kingdom is at hand” refers to the second coming, but it patently does not.
Under the new covenant, man is made right—justified—with God by accepting Christ—there are no other grounds! The adventist cults and sects do not fully understand, much less appreciate, the exchange that occurred upon the cross. The Lord Jesus “became sin for us”—became what the Father hates (2 Cor. 5:21)—and the Father had to turn His back on Him temporarily, for God cannot live with sin. Christ had to be fully man in order to be an appropriate sacrifice for human sin, and He had to be fully God in order to offer an infinite, sinless sacrifice that atoned for our sin for all eternity. The requirement that Jesus be fully God and fully man rules out any form of Arianism such as that of Jehovah’s Witnesses which states that Christ is merely the highest creation of God, or of the Seventh-day Adventists which insists that Jesus gave up at least one of His attributes of deity, omnipresence.
The second part of the exchange is that the righteousness of God becomes imputed to repentant sinners who accept Christ. Because Christ took upon Himself the sins of all who would believe in Him, repentant people take upon themselves the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). The oft-occurring statement in Romans, “the righteousness of God”, refers to our justification—our being credited with the sinlessness of the Lord Jesus Himself—through this completed work of Christ’s atonement upon the Cross.
In both cases of imputation—of Jesus becoming sin for us and of our becoming the righteousness of God in Him—the exchange is forensic or judicial, a legal declaration as in a court of law. Christ did not internally infuse sin or become sinful in His last few moments upon the cross. Neither is it possible for repentant man to truly “infuse” the very holiness of God. Nevertheless, God imputed human sin to the sinless Lord Jesus, and He imputes repentant man with His own righteousness when we believe in Jesus and His substitutionary sacrifice. It is all a matter of the grace of God.
Of course, the Christian, having received the Holy Spirit, should then be expected to exhibit signs of having received God’s grace in his/her life. When we believe, we are sealed with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13-14) and pass at that moment out of death into life (Jn. 5:24). The Holy Spirit brings Christians eternal life now, while we are still in our mortal bodies, and He is the guarantee of our glorious futures which are to come (Eph. 1:14).
Read what Paul says of Israel in Romans 10:1-13. Also, carefully read all of Galatians. Christians are granted a freedom in Christ which was not available to those under the law. The law was a child-trainer to bring us to Christ (Gal. 3:23-29). As born-again believers, however, we are now people “of the Spirit” and not of the letter (2 Cor. 3) since we have, through the Spirit, the mind of Christ within us (1 Cor. 2:16).
It will thus be appreciated that a correct understanding of justification—of how we are “made right” or reconciled to God—is intrinsic to the gospel. In fact, justification is what the gospel message is all about! It tells us that everything that happened under the old covenant only prefigured or looked forward to Christ. Sacrifices could never truly cancel out sins; only the supreme sacrifice of Christ could do that. Further, even impeccable law-keeping could not qualify us as righteous, and this fact is an important part of Paul’s message (as an ex-Pharisee).
When any Adventist sect founder develops his or her version of the gospel, that new theology always involves legalism, or additions to the simple gospel of the Lord Jesus. Once any self-proclaimed prophet or teacher requires followers to adhere to his or her teachings, the true gospel is lost! Paul has already illustrated that the true gospel doesn’t need support from extra philosophies (Ephesians and Colossians), nor with any partial adherence to the old covenant (Galatians and Romans). Believers in Christ are not to attempt to put “new wine into old bottles” (Mt. 9:17; Lk. 5:37) because the old covenant is, for Christians, now obsolete (Heb. 8:13).
Free to break the law?
Now for the inevitable question: does this gospel freedom mean that Christians are free to break all of the Ten Commandments?
The question, though, is the wrong question. The real question is, if the law is obsolete for Christians, where do we look for moral standards? For Christians to live in contradiction to Scripture’s moral standards would be showing ourselves to be children of Satan—not of Christ. We now follow “the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2), being led by the Spirit and bearing one another’s burdens. We don’t reject the law, but we look upon it in a very different way now, knowing that Christ took its penalty upon Himself at the Cross. There is now no condemnation (Rom. 8:1-2), for we are not under the law but under grace.
Because Jesus fulfilled the law, we look to Him and His entire word for truth, morality, and righteousness. The principles of the law are alive in Him‚ the Author and Fulfiller of the law, and His Spirit writes them on our hearts as we read Scripture and learn the truth of the new covenant.
So, as Paul is at pains to explain in Romans, a new way of achieving the righteousness of God, without the dictates of the law, is revealed in Christ. This fact gives the Jews, with their knowledge of law, no advantage; righteousness is received through faith in Christ.
Do all the established Protestant churches, then, have it right?
Concerning their perception of the gospel, yes—most established Protestant churches articulate the gospel accurately in their foundational doctrines. Nevertheless, many have taken on some dreadful influences. The rationalistic, God-denying, liberal theology of the last century, for instance, has taken a terrible toll and has been a destroyer of churches. One of the worst such offenders is Don Cupitt who denies the clear words of Scripture and reduces God to a mere concept. His Christ enables us to live more fulfilled lives, but doesn’t actually exist. Paul Tillich is another theologian who, earlier in this century, greatly perverted the Scriptures.
In spite of the spirit of the age, however, good conservative evangelical theology has fought back, producing a plethora of biblically sound writers and theologians, especially in the UK. Names such as John Stott, Alister McGrath, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones spring to mind.
In the final analysis, people who leave the adventist sects and cults because they have responded to the true gospel need to know there is only one focus that can keep them grounded and growing: they must be committed to the Lord Jesus and to His word, allowing the Holy Spirit to teach them truth from a biblical perspective. Only the word of God is “seed that is not perishable but imperishable” and is “living and enduring” (1 Peter 1:23). Only the gospel of the Lord Jesus—not the gospel of an organization or charismatic leader—“is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).
Concurrently, Christians who meet former adventists from any of the Millerite sects or cults need to understand that those “formers” have deeply ingrained worldviews built on unbiblical legalisms. The Christians who meet the formers need to believe the stories they will hear, and they need to be willing to study Scripture together, “so that by it [they] may grow in respect to salvation, if [they] have tasted the kindness of the Lord” (1 Pet. 2:3). †
Note: This article originally appeared online at this address: http://reachouttrust.org/category/adventism/ An updated version by the author also appears on his website at this address: http://www.ukapologetics.net/moveaway.htm
Copyright 2015 Life Assurance Ministries, Inc., Camp Verde, Arizona, USA. All rights reserved. Revised November 10, 2015. Contact email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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VOLUME 16, ISSUE 3
Robin Brace is a conservative evangelical theologian based in Devon, England. He holds a B.D. theology degree from Cardiff University, Wales, UK. He also runs the UK Apologetics website.