Skip to content

Grace and Judgment: An Orchestra, Not Just a Bugle

One of the best editors I ever wrote for frequently reminded me that I had a tendency – unfortunate from his perspective – to try to cover too many topics in one column.  “Keep it simple, Thompson,” he would plead. “Focus on one point.”

Usually he was right. But sometimes I was rebellious and deliberately slipped into sin.  This piece is another example of that since because I am so eager to see the grace/judgment theme become fertile soil for enriching Adventist dialogue, rather than being just a trigger for destructive argument.

So by way of introduction, let me suggest that the tension between grace and judgment reflects the age-old tension between those who stress human responsibility and freedom, on the one hand, and those who focus on divine sovereignty and grace, on the other. It is the tension between those who emphasize sanctification, the process of becoming holy, and those who focus on justification, God’s declaration of our right-standing before him in Christ Jesus.

And believe it or not, the often-maligned Adventist doctrine of the sanctuary can be seen as a wonderful resource for addressing this tension. We can draw a loose parallel with the last verse of 1 Corinthians 4: “What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a rod of discipline, or shall I come in love and with a gentle spirit?” (1 Cor. 4:21, NIV2011). If you need a thump to call you to responsible behavior, a view of the heavenly sanctuary can remind you of judgment; but if you function best with a vision of God’s grace, the heavenly sanctuary can point you to Christ’s ministry on your behalf.

But, grumbles the disenchanted traditionalist, how do you get around Ellen White’s stinging words that “we are to stand in the sight of a holy God without a mediator” (GC 425)? Where’s the grace in that? One simple solution transforms that line from a threat into a promise in the light of John 16:25-27. In short, the time will come when we don’t need a mediator because we will understand that the Father himself loves us.

And, we might as well tuck in the other grumble here, too, the one linked with Ellen White’s statement that “When the character of Christ shall be perfectly reproduced in His people, then He will come to claim them as His own” (COL 69). Why not apply that line to a corporate experience rather than an individual one? In short, when God sees his people pooling their strengths as a community, then Christ will return.

But there are two more issues we must address if this pillar of Adventism is to be a spur to fruitful dialogue rather than simply a bone of contention. One is “diversity,” the other is Ellen White’s growth and development   

Diversity. Many years ago a friend told me of a lively Sabbath School in Texas led by two remarkable teachers with sharply contrasting experiences. One was a former Baptist who found the Adventist emphasis on sanctification to be an exciting spark to the spiritual lethargy rooted in his Baptist once-save-always-saved experience. The other teacher had discovered the power and joy of Pauline righteousness by faith after nearly losing his soul from an overdose of Adventist legalism. My friend told me how refreshing it was to see these contrasting experiences result in stimulating “yes, but” conversations in Sabbath School. 

From a biblical perspective, recognizing the widely diverse roles that human beings play in “judgment” can temper our inclination to quarrel with those whose experience differs from our own. The intensity of a particular experience can easily turn one aspect of “judgment” into a bugle call. How much better to hear the whole orchestra. And in that connection I am thinking of three strikingly different roles that Scripture identifies for humans who stand in judgment:  The abused plaintiff crying out for justice, the accused culprit standing abjectly before the judge, and the eager witness who speaks in defense of a good friend. Here’s a brief look at each:

Abused Plaintiff. In Scripture one hears the disguised voice of the plaintiff at the flood when the whole earth was filled with “violence” (Gen. 6:11). Similarly, God told Abraham that the “outcry” against Sodom and Gomorrah was “great” (Gen. 18:20).  In Revelation 6:10 the plaintiffs cry out from under the altar, “How long?” They are calling for judgment, no less. The confidence that God will respond positively to such cries is reflected in Psalms 96-98, three buoyant “judgment” Psalms.

Accused Culprit. The dominant evangelical emphasis on judgment sees the believer standing before God as the accused and guilty culprit. And here Paul’s famous declaration in Romans 8:1 is crucial: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” In 1 John we hear good news for the guilty who suffer under the threat of judgment: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1:9, NIV2011). And if we sin? “We have an advocate with the Father – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (2:1, NIV2011).

Eager Witness. A more subtle perspective on judgment appears in the form of witness for the accused. Surprisingly, in several instances God is the one accused. Thus, when Sodom faces judgment, Abraham turns witness, even challenging God to be a faithful judge (Gen. 18:25). Similarly, Moses challenges God to rescue his own reputation by saving his people (cf. Exod. 32:12).  And perhaps the most remarkable example of all is Job, accused by Satan, but lauded by God as faithful (Job 2:3; cf. 42:7-9). And this is where we turn to Ellen White’s experience for some important perspectives on the “investigative” or pre-advent judgment.

Ellen White’s Growth and Development. I am convinced that Ellen White experienced a remarkable transformation in her own understanding of judgment, moving from the fearful experience of standing before God as the accused, to the joyful role of speaking for God as witness in a cosmic tribunal.

The more complete presentation of Ellen White’s transition was published in Westwind (Winter, 1982), the alumni journal for Walla Walla University [then Walla Walla College] as an addendum to the “Sinai to Golgotha” series that appeared in five parts in the Adventist Review in December of 1981, with a follow-up issue dated July 1, 1982.  (See full series under “writings” at the following link: A quick synopsis of the two different emphases – Sinai and Golgotha – can illustrate the differing views of the investigative judgment.

From a Sinai perspective, the judgment accentuates the gulf between a holy God and a sinful people. The thought of standing in the presence of a holy God without a mediator brings terror just as it did for ancient Israel (cf. Exodus 20:18, 19).

By contrast, a Golgotha perspective emphasizes the union between God and believers. Believers have fully recognized their own status as sinners, but have also fully accepted the sacrifice of Christ on their behalf. As a result, believers no longer see God simply as Judge, but as Father; they no longer tremble in God’s presence as the accused, for they stand acquitted in Christ Jesus. The fear of judgment is gone. God has claimed them as his own.

No longer preoccupied with their own survival, believers now recognize that judgment has a much greater purpose, namely, the vindication of God and his law against the attacks of Satan. Believers now stand confident in court as witnesses to the goodness of God and his law.

In Ellen White’s experience, the roots of that more positive view of judgment go back to a vision of 1880. Its fruit appeared in mature form in Prophets and Kings (1917). We shall look at the details shortly, but the 37 intervening years raise a significant question, namely, why was the “better” explanation so long in coming? My own conviction is that the early Adventists would never have believed it. I would use a similar argument in explaining the long “delay” before God sent his Son. Among the ex-slaves at Sinai, the gentle man from Nazareth would have been trampled in the dust. Sinai had to come before Golgotha; the impact of sin made it necessary.

But a shift in emphasis in the understanding of the investigative judgment also requires a willingness to see God in a particular way, as a God who is not afraid to allow the universe to put his law and his government to the test. Now for some reason, I have had no great difficulty accepting the idea of God putting his law and government on trial before the universe. Yet, I have occasionally wondered why some Adventists, and very loyal ones at that, simply were not  excited about the idea. I caught a clearer glimpse into that kind of thinking in connection with the Sabbath School lessons on Job while I was an exchange teacher in Germany (1980-81). Some of the believers were outspoken in their distaste for the way Satan talked to God (cf. Job 1:9-12; 2:3-6). Such talk was inappropriate and ought not to have been allowed! They firmly believed in the Bible but they did not know what to do with the book of Job.

Behind that kind of thinking lie two significant convictions that play a powerful role, especially in the lives of religious people: First, that sinners cannot exist in the presence of a holy God, and second, that created beings dare not question God. Both statements are terribly true, terribly dangerous, and very easily misunderstood.

The first statement has biblical support (e.g., Exodus 33:21-23; Deuteronomy 4:24; I Timothy 6:16; cf. Revelation 6:17) and expresses the fundamental truth that sin and holiness are ultimately incompatible. The second statement likewise has biblical support (esp. Romans 9:9-23; cf. Isaiah 45:9-11) and expresses the fundamental truth that God is the ultimate authority.

Why then are such statements so dangerous? Because a guilty conscience can distort them, imagining horrible things about God, things which the mind can come to believe as truth. Thus, the incompatibility of holiness and sin can be exaggerated to the point where God is seen as angry and disgusted with this race of rebels, annoyed that he has to have any contact with sinners at all, and demanding that every sin be fully punished.

As for God’s ultimate authority, an over-emphasis can lead to the total exclusion of human freedom. Thus God becomes, at best, a benevolent dictator, at worst, a cruel despot.

The natural results of sin tend to encourage both exaggerations. That is precisely why sin is so sinister and devastating. We see the first clear example in the experience of Adam and Eve where their own sense of guilt drove them to hide from God and even to blame him for their failure, though there had been no display of “divine wrath” (cf. Genesis 3:8-13). Even fully repentant sinners can have difficulty believing that God wishes full restoration as the cry of the prodigal son poignantly reveals: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants” (Luke 15:19, NIV2011). Most assuredly, sonship does not depend on worthiness, yet the adversary plays on the guilt feelings which naturally follow sin, tempting us to believe that God has turned his back on us in anger.

A key step in my search for a solution to the experiential difficulties connected with the investigative judgment came in the spring of 1980. After preparing a study document on the development of Ellen White’s theology, I commented to a colleague: “The only missing piece in the Golgotha picture is eschatology. That is one place where fear still lurks. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could see how Ellen White would re-write The Great Controversy if she had the chance?”

Of the five books in the Conflict series, The Great Controversy was the only one that was not written or totally re-written after 1888. The standard edition today (1911) differs only slightly from the 1888 edition, i.e., some historical quotations were changed and references were added. (See Arthur White, Ellen G. White, Messenger to the Remnant, Washington, D.C.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1954, p. 58.) I suspected how Ellen White would have told the story, but was concerned how far we could go without prophetic authority.

And then I found it – with the aid of a student who wrongly quoted a passage from Prophets and Kings. In checking his quotation I suddenly realized that here was an entire chapter dealing with the investigative judgment: “Joshua and the Angel” (pp. 582-592). With great eagerness I read it through, looking for traces of the reluctant God. None. The whole chapter is the story of the investigative judgment written from the perspective of a loving God who wants to save sinners. Further research revealed some fascinating background.

The seed that was to bear such rich fruit was apparently sown in 1880. As told in Life Sketches, Ellen White inquired in vision, “Where is the security for the people of God in these days of peril?” In response, God referred her to Zechariah 3:1-2 and declared that Jesus was our security against Satan. “Jesus will lead all who are willing to be led” (Life Sketches, 324). Prior to this vision Ellen White apparently had not realized the significance of Zechariah 3:1-2 for the “Great Controversy” story. [The printed Index to the Writings of Ellen G. White lists no occurrences of the text before 1880.] But now God had sown the seed; it would be only a matter of time until it would germinate and bear fruit.

The Index to the Writings of E. G. White lists four passages where Ellen White comments significantly on Zechariah 3:1, 2; Testimonies, vol. 5, 467-476 (1885), Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, 116, 117 (1896), Christ’s Object Lessons, 166-170 (1900), and Prophets and Kings, 582-592 (1917). All four of the contexts discuss the text in the setting of the “Great Controversy.” Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing (p. 117) states that Satan accuses us, not in some obscure courtroom, but “before the universe.” Christ’s Object Lessons (p.168) indicates that, not only is Satan accusing the believers, but God himself. Furthermore, when Christ speaks for his people, he confesses them, not before a reluctant Father, but “before the universe” (Christ’s Object Lessons, 170). Clearly Father and Son are united in their love for humankind and in their desire to rebuke the adversary.

But what I find most fascinating about Ellen White’s use of Zechariah 3:1-2 is the way she refines the article in the Testimonies for use in Prophets and Kings some 30 years later. In effect, she softens those aspects that could discourage and expands on those that encourage. The result is a masterful integration of the investigative judgment into the picture of a loving God. And it happens in her very last book. To put it very simply, the issue in judgment is no longer salvation, but theodicy, the justification of God.

When compared with the Testimonies article, the account in Prophets and Kings reveals one addition and one deletion that are particularly significant. The addition is found in Prophets and Kings (p. 589) as part of the Lord’s rebuke of the adversary. After claiming his people as his own, the Lord declares: “They may have imperfections of character; they may have failed in their endeavors; but they have repented, and I have forgiven and accepted them.” What an encouragement! We may slip and fall, but if we have given our hearts to God, he will rebuke the adversary. No reluctance here to save those who are still suffering growing pains; their hearts are with God and he claims them as his.

The significant deletion is a more delicate matter, for it is terribly true – but if seen from the viewpoint of Mt. Sinai it could so easily be misunderstood. Prophets and Kings omits two paragraphs from pages 471-72 of Testimonies, vol. 5. Both paragraphs admonish the Christian to strive to overcome every defect. That, of course, should be the goal of every Christian. But the one sentence that could cause problems runs as follows: “No sin can be tolerated in those who shall walk with Christ in white” (p. 472). If that statement is seen as describing the Christian’s deep desire to obey Christ, then all is well. But if it is linked with a view of God which sees him looking for excuses to catch sinners, then the Christian who slips and falls will flee in terror. So even though the statement is certainly true, no doubt Ellen White’s heightened concern for struggling sinners led her to delete it when she was preparing the material for Prophets and Kings.

Once we recognize that God has justified us in Christ, then we can joyfully go into judgment prepared to witness for God and for his law. That joy, I have found, is the strongest motivation possible for obedience, for now I want to obey because He has saved me. It is no longer a matter of earning salvation or of simply avoiding punishment. Obedience is the fruit of salvation.

Now whenever I find someone struggling with the investigative judgment, I recommend without hesitation the chapter on “Joshua and the Angel” in Prophets and Kings. The “Great Controversy” story has come a long way since it was first published in 1858, but what a testimony it is to God’s care for his people. He was preparing the way for his people, not only to find acceptance in him, but also to demonstrate the goodness of God and his law to a skeptical world. No doubt God was eager to give the full message right at the beginning, but the beams of truth had to come gradually or his people would have turned away from the light.

Because of our fallen condition, God uses both commands and invitations, fear and love; but there is no question as to which he prefers. He has shown us his love “so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment” (1 John 4:17, NIV2011). “Perfect love drives out fear” (verse 18). In the sunshine of that love, even judgment is good news, for we stand no longer accused, but acquitted in Christ Jesus. Before the universe we are witnesses to the goodness of God.

Still not convinced? Then bring your bugle and I’ll bring mine and we’ll both join the Adventist orchestra. By God’s grace, the music will be heavenly.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.