A quote I read several years ago (I don't remember the author) says that many of the division we see in the church occur not because one side holds truth while the other holds error; but rather because some have chosen to emphasize what God does not while de-emphasizing what God has emphasized in His Word.
A good example of this is the 1888 Minneapolis General Conference session.
Jones/Waggener vs Butler/ Smith, the 1888 GC
Most of us are familiar with the 1888 Righteousness by Faith General Conference session in Minneapolis. What should have been a joyous embracing of truth became the very bitter battle among fellow Christians.
The battle lines of the 1888 session involved certain major participants. On one side were Ellet J. Waggoner and Alonzo T. Jones, Editors of a major Christian magazine. Jones and Waggener sought to bring the God's people back to an emphasis on justification by faith.
On the other side was George I. Butler, president and Uriah Smith secretary, of the General Conference.
Butler and Smith viewed themselves as defenders of traditional Adventism.
The battle was set!
Did these men believe very differently about the issues they were fighting over?
Not at all. Jones and Waggener believed the law of God was still important, and Butler and Smith believed that we were saved by grace. So why the conflict? Over where the emphasis was placed.
We want to be a people that emphasize what God emphasizes. So in this great battle, where did God want the emphasis placed? Here's a quote from one of my favorite authors who was present at that conference
The Lord in His great mercy sent a most precious message to His people through Elders Waggoner and Jones. This message was to bring more prominently before the world the uplifted Saviour, the sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. It presented justification through faith in the Surety; it invited the people to receive the righteousness of Christ, which is made manifest in obedience to all the commandments of God. Many had lost sight of Jesus. They needed to have their eyes directed to His divine person, His merits, and His changeless love for the human family. All power is given into His hands, that He may dispense rich gifts unto men, imparting the priceless gift of His own righteousness to the helpless human agent. This is the message that God commanded to be given to the world. It is the third angel's message, which is to be proclaimed with a loud voice, and attended with the outpouring of His Spirit in a large measure (Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers pp.76).
Today I want to emphasize two points from the above statement:
- Justification by Faith is our most precious message, and This is the message that God commanded to be given to the world.
- It is the third angel's message, which is to be proclaimed with a loud voice, and attended with the outpouring of His Spirit in a large measure.
I won't seek to go into the details of that message today, but seek instead to turn our focus on it. Of such, I invite you to contemplate the following three questions with me:
Questions to Contemplate
- What is our most precious message?
- Why is it so important that we properly understand and embrace it?
- Why did we drift from it and Where are we in respect to this most precious message today?
- And while you’re thinking about those, ask yourself “Am I prepared to embrace this most precious message and allow God to use me to take it to the ends of the earth?
An opportunity to teach
A few months ago my lovely little princess found herself in trouble. She usually only ends up with a consequence for repeated offenses. This must have been such a case and so I proceeded to meet out her sentence. She'd need to tidy up the living room during her free time. If you are not a ten year old, or a parent of a ten year old, then you probably don't understand how devastating such a consequence is to a ten year old.
Like most tiny offenders would, she broke down crying and pleading to have her free time back.
Now our home is governed partially by the laws of the Medes and the Persians, which changes not. But that doesn't prevent a little one from asking. They know full well the power of teary eyes.
Besides that, there was something weighing heavily on my mind. Abigail is a good little girl; she rarely has any problem observing the rules. In this sense I believe she reflects her church very well.
Behaving ourselves isn’t so hard
It’s easy - and natural, for some of us to follow the rules. I sometimes hear non-christians say that they want to be free, not restricted by Christian principles. Even other Christians will often imply that those of us who keep the Sabbath are somewhat less joyful; a rather hard case to support when you see Christians enjoying worship and fellowship together, or walking in the park with their family on a sabbath afternoon. Most of us actually see benefits in the principles God has given, and find joy in following them.
Dangers of being well behaved
Yet there are dangers even in being well behaved:
As we look around we see others who do not appear to be as well behaved as we are.
One well behaved preacher looked across at a poor sinner and realized "I'm not doing too bad. I'm not as bad as this guy. I pay tithes and fast (Luke 18:9-14).
I go to church. I go witnessing when others are home watching TV. I don’t look at filth, not a child abuser, never murdered anyone. I might not be perfect but I think I'm doing pretty well.
And then it happened
You've probably noticed that it's easy to be hard on others when we feel we're doing fine. I remember after being in the church for six years thinking how absurd it was that guys who had been in the church before me were still struggling with lust. I'd dated several girls and never so much as kissed one. Never found myself in a compromised situation with them. I was getting ready to confront a sister whom I thought was letting down the high standard of our church.
1 Corinthians 10:12 tells us “Therefore let him that thinks he’s standing, take heed lest he falls”
I was so confident in my ability to resist sin and played right into the enemy's hands. Interestingly; that's the first time I really recognized how gracious and loving our Savior is. All along I’d been living in Revelation 3:17: filled with arrogance and pride; spiritually rich and in need of nothing. Not knowing that I was wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked.
Pressure to Perform
The first danger in being well behaved is that it could cause us to be judgemental of others. The other danger is our natural desire to want to maintain that record of good behavior.
I had my first accident in February or March 2020, and I felt very bad about that. Backed up into a car - nobody got hurt. The greatest damage, in my mind, was the ruin of my perfect driving record. How often does our main drive become maintaining perfect behavior before God and especially before others?
Failure of the Jewish Leaders
That was the big failure of the Jewish leaders.
Israel's failures were huge and many. The Bible often refers to the sin by which Jeroboam led Israel to sin ie. the sin of idolatry. God was pretty displeased about that, I tell you. He gave them some good spanking for that one; but that wasn't their greatest failure. Nehemiah tells of gross Sabbath breaking; the people buying and selling on the Sabbath; but that wasn't their greatest failure. ...
They had been ensnared by the sin of Jeroboam; but God had a remedy for that. They had killed the prophets; but God had a remedy for that; they had even mistreated the poor, widows and orphans - but God had a solution for all of that.
But we come to Romans 10 And we find a sin that God has no solution for.
Establishing our own righteousness
In Romans 10: 1-4 Paul summarized the root of their biggest issue. Will you turn there with me?
How careful we need to be not to fall into this trap.
Much to learn about grace
It was clear that my little angel was a well behaved girl; but she had a lot to learn about grace; and so I decided to take this opportunity to demonstrate that to her.
Now I want to caution you that great care needs to be taken in imparting the Gospel to babes, both literal babes as well as spiritual babes. The gospel is the most critical knowledge that we can share with anyone, and not getting it right could have eternal consequences. More on that in a moment.
Demonstration of grace
So there she was. Crying her heart out because her free time was going to be spent tidying up the living room. And so I proceeded to give a demonstration of grace.
As I tucked her into bed I said to her, "Abigail, You know that what you did was not appropriate, and we've spoken to you about this before. Now as a result of your choices you've lost your free time. But I'm going to give you some grace. Do you know what that is?"
Sure she knew the definition of grace. She’s a little Bible scholar.
"Getting something you don't deserve" She answered.
Many lost because of twisting Paul’s teachings
Before you decide to try this at home please do pay attention to the moral of the story. This story is a perfect illustration of how NOT to demonstrate grace. 2 Peter 3:15-18 tells us…
[2 Peter 3:15-18]
Peter tells us that many professed believers will be lost. Why? Because of misapplication of Paul's teaching.
What was Paul's major teaching over which many would stumble? Salvation by grace; justification by faith. Those are what Paul emphasized in his epistles.
But as with any good news it can be easily corrupted.
What Paul taught
Paul taught that spiritually dead people cannot keep a perfect law, and even if after conversion we kept it to the T we'd still end up dying because it takes just one sin to bring death and we are way past that point. As a matter of fact, we are accounted as having sinned in Adam (Romans 5). If we're going to be saved then it has to be by grace and grace alone. There is no other way.
How Paul's statements got misinterpreted
License to sin
Here's how those who were bent on continuing in sin translated Paul's statements on grace: Jesus paid the price for sin therefore I can keep on sinning. That represents one major danger inherent in such a message. There will be those who take God's grace as license to sin, and end up being lost.
We know that Paul both anticipated this and was very firm in combating this corruption to the gospel.
In Romans 6:1-2; 3:31 he meets this deadly error head on [Rom 6:1-2]
Teaching cheap gospel
The other danger in teaching the most precious message is that there will be those who will become outraged that we're apostatizing and endorsing violation of God's law, as is common in many churches today.
Those who hated Paul and wanted to maintain their superior positions jumped at this opportunity to accuse Paul of spreading lawlessness. In answering them Paul said there accusation is just - if it were true. If grace made law breaking permissible, then I'm indeed an enemy of God.
But there is no place in scripture that you can find clearer statements about the importance of upholding the law of God, and rejecting sin than you'll find in Paul's writing (Romans 3:31). If anyone is trying to find permission for their law breaking, they'd have to look some place other than in Paul's writing (or in the Bible for that matter). In Paul’s mind, saved people don’t seek opportunity to sin; they hate the very thought of sinning, and like Paul laments any tendency towards sin.
Important lesson about grace... Or not?
Which gets us back to my counterproductive attempt at demonstrating grace to my daughter.
Now she’s happy. The penalty for her behavior has been removed. I'm happy because I like to see my girls happy; but more importantly, I just taught my daughter an important lesson about grace. Or did I?
It sometimes takes years to see the fruit of our teaching. Some, we will not see until…
What did I teach my child about grace, and by extension about God?
I think I deserve some grace
A few weeks had elapsed since my important lesson. The little one once again found herself in trouble. Once again I told her that she'd need to use her free time to tidy up the living room (our living room can always use some tidying up). This time however, there weren't tears as before. She looked at me, and you know what that ingenious little one said? "Daddy, I think I deserve some grace".
I'm a man of few words; and in situations like this, even a few words are hard to find.
Let's pretend, since it's easy and makes her happy, I decide to once again remove the consequence. What would I be doing?
You've probably seen it over and over where a parent threatens to kill the little one whose behavior is drawing some very undesired attention. Of course, she doesn't follow through, as she almost never does with any of her threats. So the child knows that it's all just talk and the rules are only recommendations.
You deserve some grace?
“Well Daddy, you gave me grace last time. What makes this time any different?''
This gets us back to why we drifted away from our most precious message and what has kept us from fully embracing the message when God brought it back to us.
We drifted from the most precious message for two reasons:
- We don't want anyone to feel it's ok to continue in lawlessness because our salvation is not found in keeping the law but in the free gift of God. There is always that danger inherent in such a message, that it would be misapplied, and prove the ruin of many
- We don't want to be accused of cheapening the gospel. This was the accusation brought against Paul. Like Paul, therefore, we need to make sure we present a very balanced teaching. One that is very clear that we are saved by grace without the deeds of the law, but one that also answers the question: do we then make void the law because of faith (Romans 3:31)?
What are we supposed to do, considering these dangers that exist with teaching justification by faith through Christ? Do we minimize the message to avoid the risk? No brethren. Those who love the Savior will not seek for excuses to sin. Our call first and foremost must be to accept Christ’s righteousness and live in a loving relationship with Him.
We thank the Lord with all the heart that we have precious light to present before the people, and we rejoice that we have a message for this time which is present truth (Selected messages pp.357).
I'm surprised at how many people flock to "present truth" preachers who are at the very extreme end of those whose teachings reflect nothing of the grace of God or of Christ as our righteousness. While they stand as upholders of the standard, their work bears the mark of hate and bitterness. They prey on members, and seldom ever win anyone to Christ or to the truth. Of such I caution you, beware, even as I caution you against those who hate God and reject His laws.
The power of this message to transform lives
I want to leave you with a few quotes from a trusted eye-witness as to the power of this message to transform lives:
“The present message-Justification by Faith-is a message from God; it bears the divine credentials, for its fruit is unto holiness.”-The Review and Herald, September 3, 1889.
“Messages bearing the divine credentials have been sent to God’s people; the glory, the majesty, the righteousness of Christ, full of goodness and truth, have been presented; the fullness of the Godhead in Jesus Christ has been set forth among us with beauty and loveliness, to charm all whose hearts are not closed with prejudice. We know that God has wrought among us. We have seen souls turned from sin to righteousness; we have seen faith revived in the hearts of the contrite ones.”-The Review and Herald, May 27, 1890.
Look upon Jesus
We can look at the things around us, and our hearts will fail for fear. We can look on others, and lose our way, we can look on ourselves, and become overwhelmed with a sense of our filthiness and unworthiness. We can look upon the doctrines, the commandments, and become legalistic. But I want to encourage you today to look upon Jesus. Sinless is He. Father bestows His life unto me. My life of scarlet, my sins and wow, covered in His life, whiter than snow.
The message of justification by faith is a most precious message. It declares the extremely good news that God has accepted you in Christ; who has paid the price for the sin of every person who has ever lived; and has extended the gracious invitation to whomsoever will: come and drink of the water of life freely. Grasp it. Embrace it. Share it.