by Dean Waterman

By Dean Waterman, October 20, 2013

I am not sure why we as Adventists have such a difficult time putting Jesus where He belongs, but we do. Admission to the Adventist Church requires baptismal candidates to answer “yes” to a baptismal oath, when the Bible states unequivocally the only requirement to be saved, and baptized, is belief in Jesus, not an adherence to doctrines. Our evangelism methods are based on the transmitting of information, while Christ’s methods were love transformation. We wonder why churches of other denominations (in particular non-denominational churches) continue to grow, while the Adventist Church in the United States grows more slowly than does the general population. Furthermore, our young people are leaving the church they grew up in, seeking a relationship with God, not just rules for behavior. You might think this is a new problem for the Adventist Church, but a reflection on our history shows it is not.

On October 17, 1888, the delegates of the then twenty-five year old Seventh-day Adventist Church met together in Minneapolis for what would be a defining moment in church history. Until that moment much had been debated about the law and the remnant people adhering strictly to obedience of the law, and not much about the Jesus who embodied the law. E.J. Waggoner and A.T. Jones, editors for the Signs of the Times magazine, had been building to this confrontation for several years, as they declared the merits of righteousness by faith and putting Jesus at the center of our faith and existence as a people of God. George Butler, then General Conference president, was not thrilled with these men coming to the GC Session, much less letting them speak their thoughts on Christ as our righteousness, as it went against the grain for the traditionalists who made up most of the delegates and leadership of the Adventist church at the time. Ellen White spoke in favor of Waggoner and Jones, and more importantly took a stand in uplifting Jesus as central to our faith. She wrote only a few weeks after the session ended: “My burden during the meeting was to present Jesus and His love before my brethren, for I saw marked evidence that many had not the spirit of Christ.”[1]

The desire for Jones, Waggoner, White, and others who embraced the message of righteousness by faith was to point listeners to Christ’s merit over our works. To this point, most of what Adventists had embraced centered around the law and other Biblical truths, requiring a person to be obedient to the law, and accept the doctrines which were Adventist unique. Waggoner and Jones didn’t suggest the law was dead, but rather a person’s works would never save them; it was the merits of Christ’s death and a person’s belief in Christ’s sacrifice which made the difference. Furthermore, putting Christ as center put the law and Biblical truths in a very different light. This perspective provided by Waggoner and Jones was not new to Christians, but certainly felt new to Adventist Christians who seemed to have placed their entire Adventist beliefs on the Third Angel’s message of a remnant people who would adhere to God’s commandments. Lost in Revelation 14:12 through four decades of preaching was the statement of “faith in Jesus”, which points to salvation in Christ alone, not only obedience to the law and compliance to information and doctrine.

Adventist author George Knight says, “The significance of the 1888 meetings is they baptized Adventism anew in Christianity… From that point on, they could preach a full message that taught the distinctively Adventist doctrines within the context of the saving work of Christ.”[2] Indeed, for those who embraced this radically new perspective, it allowed them to see in a new way how Christ as center to their beliefs and obedience took the weight off of what they could be in their own works, and put the emphasis squarely on Christ, which in turn led to joyful obedience and belief of Biblical truths. The Adventist message took on a different feel, and those who preached did so with a new freedom and vigor, pointing people to a life transformation through Christ.

125 years later it feels as if it’s 1888 all over again. We have a contingency in the church who would side with then-president George Butler and the majority of delegates who preached strict obedience to the law, and those today who would embrace the message of amazing salvation and grace through Christ alone, preached with hope and vigor by A.T. Jones and E.J. Waggoner. The difference between the two viewpoints is how we interact with other members, and how we share our message with those in the world around us. For some, what you know is the most important part of becoming an Adventist, while for others it is simply Who you know in following Him as a disciple and a taking the name of Christian.

I have experienced it both ways. I grew up in a legalistic home, which preached obedience and belief first, Jesus accidentally second. As I have grown in my personal walk with God and in my pastoral ministry, I have learned that while the law and my belief of Biblical views held by Adventists is important, my trust and love for Jesus is even more so. Without the one—love and faith in Jesus—the other seems useless and often hopeless. However, as I have grown to love and place my faith in Jesus, my obedience is organic, and my appreciation of the Biblical truths as a reflection of God’s character has taken hold.

As we reflect on this anniversary of 1888, may our attention once again turn to Christ as the center of our beliefs and actions, trusting in His grace and love to change us. The difference in our evangelistic and outreach efforts will bear the fruit, for one relies on the transfer and acceptance of information, which can often be disputed, while the other relies on a life transformation through Christ, a testimony to love which cannot be doubted.

[1] 1888 Materials, p. 210.

[2] A Brief History of Seventh-day Adventists, pp. 92-93.