This week’s lesson explores how the concept of “salvation” intersects with the “end time.”
I must admit that I got to Friday’s lesson without a clear understanding of the author’s stance on the relationship between the two. Part of the problem may be that this quarter’s lessons are underpinned by the notion of a punctilliar arrival of the end time (today) rather than an overarching period of history inaugurated at the first coming of Jesus. This presuppositional lens colors the author’s conclusions at times with unusual shades.
For one, it took the author four days to finally get to the point when he says on Wednesday: “To be prepared for the end time, people must have assurance of salvation in the present . . . in order to face the future unafraid” (p. 34). And yet, the author seems torn between salvation by grace and salvation by obedience to the law when he writes that “our salvation comes not from anything we can do or from any creature merit but totally as an act arising from God’s own loving character,” while concluding the lesson by saying that the assurance of salvation is dependent on obedience to “God’s law” as well as on “the merits of Christ’s righteousness” (pp. 35, 36).
It is unfortunate that the lesson ended on this note. This point deserved a better treatment, especially for a denomination that puts so much emphasis on “keeping the law” as a prerequisite for salvation. Why can’t we simply say that we are saved “by grace” alone (Ephesians 2:5, 8) regardless of what Paul calls the erga nomou, the “works of the law”? (Cf. Romans 3:20; Galatians 2:16). In our publications, should we “err” on the side of grace lest Adventists continue to believe that “keeping” the law actually “saves”? (I doubt the author could have taken this position without significant protest).
Further, the lesson needed to make it clearer that these realities; salvation and the end time are not interdependent. Our salvation does not change based on whether we may think we live in the end time or not. Conversely, nowhere in Scripture is the eschatological end dependent on the church’s salvation. The Second Coming will occur only by divine fiat, without human input. (Again, I doubt the author could have explicitly taken this position without objection. It must be very challenging to write a Sabbath School lesson!).
This week’s lesson offers a good opportunity to discuss the uniquely Adventist notion that the church’s spiritual condition can hasten or delay the Second Coming. This is important because in all of mainstream Evangelicalism, only in Adventism are “salvation” and the “end time” so peculiarly intertwined. When the holiness movement of antebellum America stretched its hand across the gulf to clasp the hand of Millerism, the Advent movement was born. Out of the ashes of bitter disenchantment with a miscarriage of prophecy rises Adventist apocalypticism, a unique system of belief that finds in prophecy, history, and eschatological salvation its raison d’être.
Sadly, however, Seventh-day Adventism has proved to be fertile ground for the theological amalgamation that is apocalyptic perfectionism. Like a menacing “little horn” rising out of Adventism, perfectionism concocted an intoxicating elixir of soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) and eschatology (the doctrine of the end) sold under the alluring package of Last Generation Theology––with representatives in the highest echelons of the Adventist church. (Read my own experience with perfectionism here.)1
This problematic interpretation advocates that salvation involves reaching sinless perfection which, when achieved, triggers a sequence of events that expedite the Second Coming. “A perfect, sinless generation,” they say, “holds the key to the end time.” (Although the lesson’s author did not advocate for this position, he didn’t fully deny it either.)
But what does the New Testament say about the when of the end time and its impact on a believer’s salvation?
In a recent article, I explored how the “time of the end” in the book of Daniel is more fluid than usually allowed in Bible translations. For the New Testament writers, the end time was “notoriously ambivalent.”2 “At some points,” writes Stephen Smalley, “the ‘end-time’ appears to extend over a very short period, and the climax seems to be imminent. . . . At others the final day is apparently far removed.”3
Such imminence is seen in Matthew 10:23 where Jesus circumscribes the end time events to a geographical area smaller than Israel, predicts the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E. as a harbinger of the end (Matthew 24:15-28) and that Caiaphas would still be living at his Second Coming (Matthew 26:64). Not long afterwards, John writes: “Children, it is the last hour! As you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. From this we know that it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18; the Greek term hora can apply to a moment or a period of time).
On the other hand, creating a timetable of the end time as a way to foster piety was frowned upon by the apostles; the eschatological end was not yet “in sight.” Paul warned the Thessalonians against being overly confident about the nearness of the end as if Jesus was already coming back (1 Thessalonians 2:2). In his last message to the disciples, Jesus called them to be his “witnesses” all over the world and avoid preoccupation with the end (Acts 1:6-8).
Our challenge is to guard against the notion that our eschatological salvation today calls for something different than it did for the primitive church. Today, millennia after the “last hour” had already dawned in John’s time, we are not held by different standards than were the first Christians. Our allegiance to the everlasting gospel of salvation by grace today unites us with the historical church whose members swore allegiance to the everlasting gospel in their time.
The salvation of believers in first century Philadelphia entailed “holding fast” to Jesus’ “word of patient endurance” because, He says, “I am coming soon” (Revelation 3:9-11, emphasis supplied). An invitation to patiently endure until the end (either of life or of time) seems particularly pertinent for end-time-minded believers such as ourselves. Christians reading this letter today should have a clear understanding of the tension between the now (“soon”) and the not yet aspects of prophetic fulfillment (we’re still here!).
The first coming of Jesus inaugurated “the final hour” of history, and we are still called to be witnesses to that event. And while an awareness of this “final hour” is an important motivation for us to continue being credible witnesses for Jesus and “holding fast” to our salvation, such attentiveness should not degenerate into questionable apocalypticism dependent on dates and pre-approved historical fulfillments. Much less should the importance of the world’s “final hour” be obfuscated by the salvation-by-works emphasis of Adventist perfectionism.
Listen to this story:
Notes & References:
1. I explore one such fanatical movement here: https://spectrummagazine.org/article/andr%C3%A9-reis/2013/07/29/%E2%80%9Cold-spirit-blind-sammy-hancock%E2%80%9D-meeting-colorful-early-adventist-prea.
2. Stephen S. Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, vol. 51, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1989), 96.
André Reis has published articles and book chapters on theology, church history, worship, and music. He has recently finished a PhD in New Testament.
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