Post 47: Salvation: Courage to Face the Tough Stuff?

In the blog posted 2 March 2012 (“Mount Exmouth and Adventist Teaching”) we reviewed, oh so briefly, the way in which Adventists’ understanding of their mission has developed since 1844. Some will want to stop reading this piece, right now. Let me warn you: we are now about to start trying to understand something that isn’t as easy as the case study, above. More than that, the subject is controversial.

Some pilgrims have fallen into what John Bunyan depicts as the dangerous Slough of Despond because they failed to understand how good God is and what His grace really means. Some have lost all interest in spiritual things because of what they perceive as destructive conflict over which path is the absolutely right one to the Celestial City. Others have suffered heat stroke from getting too hot under the collar about what they deemed were bad choices made by other pilgrims, be they leaders, members, or both. In technical terms, this tough stuff may be referred to as the Protestant Reformation doctrine called Righteousness by Faith. In Revelation 14 it is referred to as “the everlasting gospel” (KJV) or “the eternal gospel” (NIV) or the “Good News” (TCNT).

But let’s make it simple: it is really all about salvation, a principal teaching of the Bible, the main concern of the Protestant Reformation, the core doctrine of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. It is also the focus of some of the most vigorous fights Adventists have had during the past seventeen decades. The Adversary is always sure to target something as precious as God’s Good News. In essence, the gospel tells us how good God is; doubt about that reality started the “war in heaven” (Revelation 12) and has kept the conflict running ever since. The Bible not only depicts the process of that war; it enables us understand the outcome and choose to be on Mount Zion with the God’s name on our foreheads (Revelation 14:1) amongst those who “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Revelation 14:4).

So, What is the Good News?

Christianity is, very simply defined, “the religion of Jesus.” The earlest written accounts of His life and teachings are called the Four Gospels. Mark’s action-packed narrative starts this way: “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” Mark: 1:1. Luke quotes “an angel of the Lord” who announced to the shepherds at Bethlehem: “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord,” Luke2:10, 11.

Mark, Luke and the other New Testament authors wrote for a Mediterranean world where Roman government and Greek language were almost universal. Mark tells the story of Jesus with energy and action up front, in a way that would appeal best to Romans. Luke’s gospel was ideal for the Greeks. But all the 27 books of the New Testament used the Greek language to express Christian ideas. So it helps to understand just what the words they used meant, at the time the books were written.

Probably Matthew and the other writers, including Paul, knew very well four meanings of the Greek word we often translate into English with one word, gospel, or with two words, Good News. An angel is inside the Greek word, because an angel is a messenger. The other part of the word implies something well or good. Literally, then, gospel is a good message.

Back in the times of the Greeks and the Romans, when a son was born to a ruler, the announcement was said to be Good News. When a military victory was reported, that was announced as Good News. When an election was held, the identity of the elected one was declared as Good News. When a wedding invitation was given, that too was deemed to be Good News!

The New Testament writers are passionate about their particular Good News: a Son is born to the Ruler of the Universe; He met and defeated Satan in the desert of this world; He is the Chosen One that will lead the redeemed to the Kingdom of God and rule them lovingly for all eternity; all are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19). Those four ideas, surrounding birth, triumph, election and marriage, are woven into the fabric of the New Testament and help us to understand the gospel that the earliest Christians loved so much and  “proclaimed to every creature under heaven,” Colossians 1:23.

Notice that the gospel was good news about God’s action in Jesus Christ to save us. How on earth could such a heavenly message create fights on earth?

The Story of the Church

Paul Landa, an expert historian who earned his first degree at Avondale College, used three words to package the marvellous, three-phase survey of church history he gave each year at La Sierra University in California. When I was called back in 1996 to teach in the School of Religion there, one of my assigned tasks was to sit in Paul’s classes so that if his treatment for cancer meant he couldn’t take the next session, I could fill in. Students drove hundreds of kilometres to attend his four hours of classes each Thursday night.

Paul Landa’s shoes were so big I didn’t find them easy to wear. The good side was I got to hear most of his memorable account of twenty centuries of Christianity. Like the Ancient Mariner, he held us with his glittering eye as he told the story of the Christian Church in three 40-lecture segments entitled Formation, Reformation, Transformation.

It is awesome to learn how the religion of Jesus was planted in a hostile world. “When the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive the full rights of sons,” Galatians 4:4. The church was formed well: Apostles like Peter told their message very plainly: “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ,” Acts 2: 36. Paul reminded the church at Corinth of the gospel he preached to them: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,” I Corinthians 15: 1-4. But the purity of that New Testament gospel was lost to the masses until the church that was deformed by human tradition was reformed.

At its core, the Reformation of the sixteenth century was a return to the gospel, in part by a four-fold emphasis: Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone. Next came the Evangelical Revival as people like John Wesley emphasised anew the grace of God. Miller and his hundreds of committed Adventist preachers proclaimed a clear, winsome gospel that called their generation to receive Christ as the only way to be ready for the Second Advent.

I am awed by the effectiveness of many Millerite Adventists as they balanced the message of salvation (Christ’s First Advent) with the message of an imminent consummation (Christ’s Second Advent). My readers may like to read the lively pamphlet that William Miller called his Apology and Defence, published in 1845; it underlines the adequacy of his teacing about salvation.

The next blog will offer a profile of the first four decades of Sabbatarian Adventism. Why was the explosive 1888 General Conference necessary?

Arthur Patrick, 9 March 2012