by William Vercio
I am a 4th generation Adventist, which isn’t uncommon, and I’m over 60, which also isn’t uncommon, but when you look at those two things together, through my grandparents, who were alive when Ellen White was still alive, I have a connection to the church pioneers. My grandparents’ stories and practices gave me a picture of the church that Ellen White knew. And the common theme running through my entire experience with the church is that salvation is our business. It’s up to us to do the right things, to perform right, to behave in a “savable” way. It’s the same in every church I’ve been exposed to, but we have the uniquely Adventist twist of having to dread the Investigative Judgment. It can be a real buzz kill to worry about whether or not I am doing “well enough” to make it through that fearful time. The common theme running through my entire experience with the church is that salvation is our business. It’s up to us to do the right things, to perform right, to behave in a “savable” way.
The common theme running through my entire experience with the church is that salvation is our business. It’s up to us to do the right things, to perform right, to behave in a “savable” way.
The problem is that the Bible paints an entirely different picture. In the Bible salvation is entirely about God. God decided when who would be the Father of the Faithful, who would build the Ark, who would lead the Children of Israel out of Egypt, who would be the first and second kings of Israel, who the Judges and the Prophets would be, when Jesus would come, who would receive the news from angels and through prophecy, who would be the Apostles, who would live and die, etc. In Ezekiel 36 God says, “It’s not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my great Name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have been.” God makes all the decisions, except one.
Let me spell it all out for you at the beginning so you will know where I am going, and then you can see if you agree or not. No one should ever believe anything another human being says unless the Holy Spirit agrees. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would lead us into all truth, not another human being. So, unless you are “convinced in your own mind” (Romans 14), don’t believe anything I say.
My first destination is that God takes all the responsibility for our salvation except for our acceptance of that salvation. After I show why I believe that, I’m going to touch for a few moments on recent events in the church and how we can relate to them more productively.
So, to begin: Jesus said in John 6:47 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life.” In the Greek the truly, truly is strongly emphasized. In the paraphrase of my mind I read that as, “Pay attention because this is the truth,” followed by six short, easily understood words which are the essence of the Gospel: “He who believes has eternal life.” So simple, yet I have never heard those words in a sermon. So straightforward, yet I have heard repeated arguments over the meaning and road to salvation. If I believe that Jesus came from God to this world to save me from sin, I have salvation. This is repeated over and over in the works of John, probably because we’re slow to catch on. If I want eternal life I only have to believe that Jesus came from God to save me from sin. If I don’t believe, no one can force me to do so. Fortunately for me, I do believe that Jesus came from God to save me from sin, so I quality for eternal life. On that basis alone. No performance, no law-keeping, not even Sabbath keeping. Not tithe paying, not church attendance. No other basis.
The business of the church, then, should be to keep reminding me of that when guilt and a sense of responsibility try to take my eyes off of that truth.
When Jesus made it so simple, in essence He was saying, “This is what anyone on earth is capable of, and if a person does that, I can take care of the rest.” He said almost those exact words in Ezekiel 36:25 to 27 ““Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.”
So, who’s responsible for our behavior, for changing our hearts and our lives? God.
Paul says the same thing in Philippians 2:13: for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” Who is working in us to be willing to do the right thing? God. And who works out the action He desires? God.
One more text on this subject, I John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Who will purify us? God. What is our part? Confession. What’s the purpose of confession? The short version is that when we confess something as sin, it gives God—who has the highest respect for our individuality—permission to change that thing, whatever it is, and it separates it in our minds and souls, from us. (Romans 7)
So, in every part of salvation except the actual consent, God takes all the responsibility. He does this for our good. We were never designed to carry responsibility. It’s too heavy for us. And we aren’t equipped to fulfill any responsibilities, anyway, so it just makes us feel guilty and insecure. Taking responsibility either crushes us under a sense of our own inadequacy, or creates pride at what a great job we are doing, and inevitably fosters judgmentalism as saint compares himself with sinner.
The story of Moses illustrates how destructive responsibility is to us, and how God feels about it. Moses spent many difficult years with the children of Israel. As they encountered problem after problem he would go to God and say, “What are You going to do about this because the people are ready to kill me.” And God would step in and fix the problem. Moses would tell the people something like, “Your complaints are not about me, they’re about God.” That was the sequence that was supposed to be followed.
But one day Moses was in a bad mood, and he forgot the correct sequence. He went to God, all right, but instead of doing what God said to do, Moses’ impatience led him to take responsibility for God’s intervention. “Must we bring water from this rock for you?” As if Moses had any part in it except swinging the stick. But Moses distracted people from God’s message, which was, “Call on Me and I will take care of you.”
So strongly did God feel about Moses’ sin that He told His best friend on earth at the time, the man He spoke to as a friend, that he couldn’t cross into the Promised Land. In comparison with the sins of the children of Israel, that seems minor. But God knows how destructive that particular sin is to our souls, and He wanted to make sure we got the point. Oh, and incidentally, Moses went to heaven anyway.
Those are the reasons I believe that our salvation is all God’s responsibility, except for the actual consent. When we see what happens in the church when people take responsibility for God’s work, it’s clear how destructive that sin is. I have been in a church where people took responsibility for protecting God’s truth and church. It was painful and ugly, and the church was divided, and good people left and hearts were injured. A charismatic pastor welcomed people into the church without putting up the barriers that some thought he should. He played music which many people felt didn’t belong in church. He didn’t follow the church manual in a way which some believed in. And the defenders of God’s truth took it upon themselves to visit the mission officials to express their thoughts about the pastor’s future. The pastor left before he could be fired, and shortly afterwards, God’s defenders left, too. I was an elder, so I saw how the elders sweat blood and tears to try to bring about reconciliation and resolution, but nothing can be done for a person who puts himself in God’s place, until he suffers enough to decide that he doesn’t really belong in God’s place.
In San Antonio we saw people on both sides of the ordination issue trying to defend their personal view of God’s truth on that topic. Each side mustered their texts, gathered their allies, and believed they knew what the right outcome should be. But again, that’s a way of putting yourself in God’s place. God does things that no one would expect. No one really knows “what would Jesus do?” Read the stories in the Bible, especially the stories of Jesus. Could you predict what He would say in a given situation, or how he would treat the people He came across? I, for one, would have rushed off to heal Lazarus from illness before he died. And then I would have missed one of the great illustrative miracle opportunities. I probably wouldn’t have told Peter “Get behind me, Satan,” for trying to tell me what I should do about the upcoming crucifixion. But then I would have given the wrong message. I, for sure, wouldn’t have said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will built it up again,” when asked by what authority I was cleansing the temple. But everyone remembered that eventually (the disciples later than the Pharisees, sadly).
So who’s to say that God let the wrong thing happen in San Antonio? I don’t agree at all with the people who are against ordination, but I believe that there is honesty and integrity in that group, and a willingness to see new light when it comes. Not in everyone, but in some. And I’m willing to let God take responsibility for cleaning up His church and bringing truth to us, and taking us down the road to heaven, just as I’m letting Him take responsibility for cleaning up my life. And in every moment I’m living in grace as I believe that Jesus came into the world from God to save me from sin.
William Vercio is an Adventist physician who says he’s “had enough experience with real life and the church to be forced to look at life and issues in a different way than the way I was raised.” He lives in Guam.