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There is little doubt that Seventh-day Adventists believe in the doctrine of salvation by “grace” through faith “alone.” Although there might still be pockets of the dreaded legalism located here and there in the SDA Church, most of our periodical and book publications make it clear that there is nothing any person can hope to do by way of “works of the law” to merit personal salvation. If there are any dangerous trends that SDAs seem to be flirting with, it involves a species of cheap grace that seems to be most commonly expressed with the term God’s unconditional love. Permit me a few reflections on this term and then I will conclude with some comments on atonement.

Most certainly, divine “grace” includes all that God has lovingly done, is doing, and will do to reconcile sin-ridden, alienated sinners to himself. But is this grace in any sense “unconditional”? I think the answer to this question should be framed with a carefully crafted “yes and no.”

Most certainly, God’s grace is a manifestation of “unconditional love” in the sense that all that flows from “Love Divine” is unconditionally “sufficient” to save (reconcile) the entire human race. But grace will only be redemptively “efficient” for those who meet one simple “condition”: there must a response of embracing, claiming faith to the offer of God’s grace. If there is no response, then the person is not saved. In other words, there is a “condition” for the reception of the provisions of God’s loving and saving grace. And that “condition” is responsive, trusting embrace of grace by faith.

Even those who advocate the currently popular concept called “universal legal justification” always and ultimately admit that those who have been “legally justified” by Christ’s life, death, and resurrection must then be “experientially justified or they will not be eternally saved. In other words, in the context of a lot of loose use of the language of God’s “unconditional love,” there is always a “condition” involving some sort of saving faith lurking in the background. To do otherwise would be to inevitably drag SDA teaching into some sort of Calvinistic, irresistible grace, or some version of “universalism” (the idea that all will be ultimately saved, even if they don’t want to be).

Such alternatives simply strike at the very heart of Adventism’s long-standing embrace of the concept of “graced free-will.” This latter concept has come down to us through our Protestant heritage of what has been called Wesleyan/Arminian ideas of free grace. Maybe a few comments on this concept will help to clarify the situation of God as the Lord of both “free” and “sovereign grace.”

The sixteenth-century Protestant reformers (especially Luther and Calvin) strongly believed that God’s grace was “sovereign,” “free,” and “irresistible.” Jacobus Arminius (an early seventeenth-century Dutch Calvinist) and his most influential admirer, John Wesley (an eighteenth-century British and North America revivalists), believed that God’s grace is both “sovereign” and “free,” but that it was not “irresistibly” effective to save anybody. The whole concept that “grace” can be resisted does not deny that God “irresistibly” makes an offer of saving grace to all (this is the “sovereignty” of his grace), but that when he makes the offer of saving grace (through the calling and convicting initiatives of the Holy Spirit), he does so in a way that such grace can be either accepted or refused. In the sound thinking of SDA Wesleyan/Arminians, to conclude otherwise would be to make God analogous to some sort of brutish “cave man” who is bent on forcing his love on the unwilling human objects of his affections.

Furthermore, if we choose any other basic view of personal salvation by grace, we are in danger of effectively doing away with the “Great Controversy” theme (how can God possibly vindicate himself if he simply forces all of the decisions?). Such thinking will land us all on the arid dustheap of Calvinistic determinism or some sort of mushy version of “cheap-grace.” Let’s be very clear: this “cheap grace” emphasis always includes some implicit or explicit view of “universalism”—the idea that God is going to save the unrepentant in spite of all of their reckless neglect of or rebellion against the offers of his “unconditionally” sufficient, saving and loving grace. Is this latter alternative the way our exposition of the Adventist doctrine of Grace should be moving? I should think not!!

Now for just a few comments on the concepts of “grace” and the “atonement.” I would suggest that the word atonement be defined in a way that is almost identical to our definition of grace: it is all that God has done, is doing, and will do to bring about the salvation of sinners from sin. But the atoning benefits will prove to be effective only for sinners who respond by faith in Christ. Although space does not permit extended commentary on the different “models” or “theories” of the Atonement, it just seems that without the contributions made by models that emphasize Christ’s death as our “substitute” who bears our guilt and pays the “penalty” for our sin in order to “satisfy” the demands of God’s loving “justice,” we go way off the mark of sound theology as portrayed in the Sanctuary imagery of Scripture and the writings of Ellen G. White.

I invite readers to reflect prayerfully and carefully on the powerful portrayals of the “Passion” of our Lord in the biblical Gospels and the Desire of Ages chapters titled “Gethsemane,” “Calvary,” and “It Is Finished.” It just seems that the concepts of penalty, substitution, and satisfaction are profoundly inherent in Scripture and the writings of Ellen White. Although there is no denial of the important contributions of all of the other “models” or “theories” of the Atonement, it just seems obvious that without the core ideas involved in penalty/substitution/satisfaction, the graced meaning of the atoning death of Christ is severely compromised and diminished.

What do you think?

Woodrow Whidden is professor of historical and systematic theology at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies, in the Philippines.

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