Will Jesus Not Return Unless We Become Perfect?

Will Jesus Not Return Unless We Become Perfect?

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Published:
October 15, 2020

In my last column I committed to re-examining events we postulate would trigger Jesus’ Second Coming. The first essay discussed our position on universal Sunday Laws and how that view plays out in our eschatology. This article considers the viewpoint of a vocal conservative minority in Adventism who assert, with fearsome certainly, that Jesus’ SC is dependent on attainment of “sinless perfection” by people within the Remnant Church in the “Last Generation.” Increasingly, this view is presented as “historic Adventism” and pitched to young Adventists in settings like Generation Youth for Christ assemblies.

We find this stance captured in EG White’s (EGW) 1900 book Christ’s Object Lessons (COL): “Christ is waiting with longing desire for the manifestation of Himself in His church. When the character of Christ shall be perfectly reproduced in His people, then He will come and claim them as His own.” (p. 69) This statement anchors another more developed EGW understanding of what Jesus expects of his followers as a condition for his return:

Those who are living upon the earth when the intercession of Christ shall cease in the sanctuary above are to stand in the sight of a holy God without a mediator. Their robes must be spotless, their characters must be purified from sin by the blood of sprinkling. Through the grace of God and their own diligent effort they must be conquerors in the battle with evil. While the investigative judgement is going forward in heaven, while the sins of penitent believers are being removed from the sanctuary, there is to be a special work of purification, of putting away of sin, among God’s people on earth. (Great Controversy p. 425)

It should be emphasized that these two EGW quotations, and not a clear biblical statement, form the foundation of this insistence that Jesus is waiting for “self-made” remnant Adventists, sometimes linked to the 144,000 of Revelation 7, to trigger the Parousia. Though Jesus is divine, they contend, during his first advent he relied exclusively on his humanity to overcome the human propensity to sin. And to prove to the on-looking unfallen worlds that sin could be overcome, and God’s law could be perfectly obeyed, without divine assistance.  Humans – on their own – should be able to replicate what the human nature of Jesus accomplished.

Like Jesus, these individuals will work out their own salvation, so to speak, by living sinlessly. This, advocates imply, explains why Jesus has been waiting since the Investigative Judgment began in 1844, for a saintly few to stop “committing sinful acts” and attain “sanctified maturity” just before the “close of probation.” Until then, Jesus’ second advent is on hold. This, in essence, when stripped of its coded obfuscations and doublespeak, is the premise of Last General Theology (LGT), as promoted by a small group of conservative Adventists who always manage to find powerful backers in the highest offices of the church.

Much of Christendom, including Adventism, has long ago come to terms with the confounding paradox of believing that Jesus’ nature is/was simultaneously fully/totally/completely God and fully/totally/completely human. We view this in much the same sense as we believe that the Christian God is Singular, even though the Godhead of Father, Son and the Holy Spirit are individually regarded as independent. To maintain intellectual integrity one has to accept this paradox, and many Christians have, chalking it up to the “mysteries of faith”.

In Adventist thought, the disputes about Christ’s nature have played out as a perennial tug for preeminence between Justification (Grace) and Sanctification (Works). Though the church has always recognized the importance of Justification in salvation, we have often seemed to prioritize Sanctification in real everyday living. Perhaps because of our doctrinal emphasis on obedience to the 10 Commandments.

For a while after the 1888 Minneapolis General Conference (GC) session there was hope in church theological circles that the debate over Grace and Works was over, and Grace had “won,” but Sanctification’s demise turned out to be premature. Still, 1888 was an important breakthrough, as the church gradually and semi-officially came to understand Justification as a first cause, defining it as Christ’s unmerited forgiveness of our sins, an atonement that puts us back in God’s favor. Sanctification, the transformed life, took its proper secondary place as a dependent outgrowth of being justified. The Christian’s daily attempt to emulate Jesus’ life of godliness was no longer causative of salvation but a result of being saved.  But in conservative circles, the church’s post-1888 shift in favor of Justification did not dim their view that the sanctified life, evidenced by obedience to the law, was what really mattered. Thus stalemate.

This tenuous truce seemed to hold until the late 1950s. Then church leaders, in hopes of discarding the cult tag that had dogged Adventism for almost a century, held “secret” discussions with key evangelical groups to make its case that the Seventh-day Adventist Church was mainstream. One result from this was the 1957 publication of Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine. (QOD) The book, Adventism’s grand overture to evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity, became instantly controversial.  Adventist conservatives saw it as compromise – watering down two important “historical” Adventist positions on Christology (Christ’s nature) and Atonement (reconciliation of God and humanity through Christ).

On Atonement, the controversy hinged on QOD’s endorsement of the evangelical/fundamentalist idea that salvation was completed/finished at the Cross. This was viewed as undercutting the position of Adventist conservatives that the Cross was only a partial fulfillment awaiting completion by a future perfect generation. Additionally, the position taken by QOD, that Christ had a sinless human nature at birth, suggested he had inherent capabilities humans lacked. This was viewed negatively in the Adventist right-wing community, who stressed Christ’s humanity.

From here on, some church theologians and pastors, notably ML Andreasen and Herbert Douglas, and later Dennis Priebe and Larry Kirkpatrick among others, would champion the nascent LGT course. Andreasen, the intellectual leader of the group, rode his QOD displeasure to founding a movement among conservatives. But probably the most influential, and some say sustainers of LGT, have been conservative leaders and higher church administrators. Chief among them are two GC presidents, Robert Pierson and Ted Wilson. Pierson was probably the most open and unabashed proponent of LGT, using his 10 years at the church’s helm to consistently appeal for a “special work of purification, of putting away of sin among God’s people,” so Jesus could come. Wilson, now in his 11th year as GC President, has been more adroit in his support of LGT teaching. He has used EGW’s writings as his special weapon of advocacy, quoting from COL page 69 and Great Controversy page 425 at every opportunity.

The foregoing is background to our LGT perfectionism controversy. Proponents have succeeded in using perplexing EGW statements to muddy the theological waters about the role of Grace and Works in salvation. Maybe our quarrel should be with EGW for creating the fertile environment for some to feel, like Icarus, that humans can soar up to the gods with their self-made wings. But while we wait to be perfect, there are multiple concerns about LGTism that proponents must clarify:

1. How do we know we have attained perfection? If the Second Coming is dependent on human perfectibility, shouldn’t we have empirical means of measuring when individuals or groups have mastered unaided perfection? If those who have become perfect are unaware that they are perfect, and those looking on cannot determine it, why stress what can’t be known? I understand the human impulse to be the attractive center of everything, but what do we bring to the salvation “table” that measures up? I recall EGW’s statement in Steps to Christ: “The closer you come to Jesus, the more faulty you will appear in your own eyes; for your vision will be clear, and your imperfections will be seen in broad and distinct contrast to His perfect nature.” (p. 64) This should give us pause.

2. When is the Last Generation and how do we know we’re in it? Since LGT dating is intimately tied to 1844 in Adventist eschatology, we infer that all who existed before 1844 are eliminated from consideration. They could not be identified with Revelation 14: 6-12, the key biblical passage which inspires Last Generation thinking. By this logic, only post-1844 Christians, and more specifically post-1863 Seventh-day Adventists (then a formalized church), qualify as Last Generation. Since the Lord has not come yet, it is safe to assume those interconnected events: Investigative Judgment, close of probation and the perfecting of the saints, are still in the future. Is it imprudent to ask when? Why should we preach human perfectibility if we can’t define or locate the generation that embodies it?

3. Who determines when Jesus returns? As I understand the LGT position, the timing of the Second Coming is no longer determined by God as the Bible infers in Mark 13:32, but influenced solely by human behavior. God, and to a similar extent Jesus, seem operationally out of the loop about the return. They are held captive to, and now have to wait on, a group of humans in the church to get their perfectionist act together and trigger the long-awaited event. There is a certain unseemliness to this notion, not unlike the hubris of men aspiring to be gods.

We study our history, I hope, not only to affirm its enduring strengths but also to learn where we might have erred or overstated our claims. When we find such occurrences we should muster the moral courage to face up and correct them. Truth should be objective and those who attempt to pursue it should not be vilified. Nor should they be cowered into guilt for daring to question. A community of fellow faith-travelers must strive to be indifferent to judgment, but it is disingenuous to cover up past mistakes by labeling those who call for re-examination, reform or truth-telling, as church “bashers.” Such attitudes would absolve us of complicity, temporarily, but it wouldn’t remove the haunting specter of self-deception.

The issue at hand is not whether humans should be perfect. At some point the meaning of perfection or character maturity gets pounded into semantic submission. The main issue with LGT’s perfectionism construct is that Jesus must defer to human action. In a perversion of godliness Jesus is rendered a helpless bystander, waiting on humans to achieve behavioral mastery so he could act. It is one thing for a group of Christians to be so convinced of their superior righteousness as to dispense with Christ’s mediation, but another thing entirely to sideline Christ on the question of his own return. The former takes chutzpah, the latter, contempt.
 

 

Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home. Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/author/matthew-quartey.

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