I remember my first Revelation seminar as a child. The pictures of the beasts and destruction of cities seemed cool, but also scary, igniting a fear within me: how could I “be ready” before Jesus comes so I wouldn’t die like those people in the pictures? This led me on a journey of trying to figure out how to “be ready” and what “be ready” meant.
I remember as a kid pleading with God every night before going to bed to forgive me of any sins, but still felt fearful that I may have forgotten some. I got baptized at nine years old so that I would “be ready.” Later that day, I felt that I was no longer ready because I yelled at my brother, which must have disappointed God.
It wasn’t until my late teens and college years that I began to understand the gospel more fully, a liberating journey I am still on. In my career as a minister, I have heard similar statements of fear expressed by people near death, afraid that they are not “ready,” many who would be seen as giants in their faith.
In this week’s lesson, Sabbath afternoon started off with a beautiful affirmation that the Sovereign Lord “also reveals Himself as a personal God who initiates and sustains a relationship with His people.”
The last paragraph of that same day’s lesson made a contradictory statement:
“We should remember that the proper response to the Lord’s nearness consists in a life of faith in Him and of obedience to His commandments. Nothing short of this faith and obedience will be acceptable to Him” (emphasis added).
These two statements resonate with the whiplash experienced by so many who grow up in the Adventist Church. We hear songs like “Amazing Grace” and “Blessed Assurance” and learn the Gospel message that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, but also experience confusion and lack of assurance of salvation when emphasis is put on all the ways we must please God, or behaviors that are “acceptable” to him.
The tension still arises in some Adventist circles, whether the issue is cheese eating, coffee drinking, women pastors, music styles, dress codes, or some other issue.
So, which is it? Is God a God who initiates and sustains a relationship with his people, or do we have to be faithful and obedient to God to receive divine acceptance?
A similar contradiction appears later in Thursday’s lesson. The reading begins with a beautiful promise from Hebrews 4:15-16 with the well-known invitation: “…Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Then, in the following paragraph comes this assertion without any scriptural reference: “It is only when people stand in a right relationship with God through repentance and acceptance of God’s grace and forgiveness that they can plead for God’s assurance and deliverance.”
This problematic sentence seems to suggest that assurance and deliverance come only after people stand in a right relationship with God. However, according to Hebrews 4, we are implored to come boldly and plead to God for deliverance, even when, or perhaps especially when, our relationship with him doesn’t seem “right” and when our lives are a mess. The assurance of his deliverance is not because of us or what we’ve done, but because of who he is.
Wednesday’s lesson offers us a ray of hope in the fog of these contradictions around salvation and deliverance. There is a reference to the Psalms and the deliverance of God’s people out of Egypt, which reminded me of Exodus 20 in which God gives the commandments to his people. In Exodus 20:2, right before the commandments are given, God states “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” This contextual prerequisite is incredibly important in that God is specifying how his people will keep His commands: The same God who saved them and delivered them out of bondage (something they couldn’t do for themselves) is the same God who will write this law on their hearts and help them fulfill it (Ezekiel 36:27, Jeremiah 31:33, and Psalms 40:8). The “thou shalt not” is not so much a command as it is a promise of “you shall not because I am the One who will do it in you.”
When we understand the gospel (Romans 1:16), that our God is the one who both initiates (Jeremiah 31:3) our relationship and sustains (Psalms 55:2) our relationship, that he is the author (justification) and perfector (sanctification) of our faith (Hebrews 12:2), that our job is simply to accept the free gift (Ephesians 2:8) that he has already given to all (Titus 2:11), that his love, deliverance and rescue started long before we were even born (Jeremiah 31:3), this good news is truly, like the old hymns say, a “blessed assurance” and an ”amazing grace!”
This is why we can say, even during hardships, persecution, and heartache in this world, that we have already been delivered and rescued, because this deliverance first and foremost is from sin, and from ourselves and even our innermost fears, including fears that may ask “am I ready?” We are ready because he is ready and has made us ready by his grace. It is in that assurance we can stand with heads held high, even in the midst of calamity, knowing that he already is our deliverer, our refuge, our defender, and our hope!
Image: “Let’s Thrive Together” by Nickson Jeremia for CoGenerate x Fine Acts.