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Penultimate Generation Theology


All this quarter, the Adult Bible Study Guide focuses on the metal-forming process of a fire-heated crucible. This is its metaphorical way to describe the concept of trials as painful experiences that believers can use to refine their character. It also makes for brutal reading. Trigger warning! 


What is the role of our wills, and willpower, in the battle with self and sin? How can we avoid the mistake of letting our feelings rule the decisions we make? Why must we persevere and not give up when in the crucible?


Sometimes the crucible is there precisely because we have not obeyed or repented of our sins. 


The Greek word translated “labor” means to “grow weary,” to “work to the point of exhaustion.” This word was used particularly of athletes as they trained. The word for “struggle,” which comes next, can mean in some languages “to agonize.”

This relationship works in exactly the same way as we pursue the development of Christ’s character in us.


Feelings are not necessarily bad, but how I feel about something may have little to do with what is right or best. Indeed, our feelings can lie to us (“The heart is deceitful above all things” [Jer. 17:9]) and can create a false picture of reality, causing us to make bad choices, setting us up for a crucible of our own making.


“If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matt. 5:29, NIV). Dwell on the words of Jesus in the above text. Would you call them radical? If so, why?

Rather, He is calling us to control our minds and therefore our bodies, no matter the cost. Notice that the text does not say that we should pray and that God will instantly remove the sinful tendencies from our lives. Sometimes God may graciously do this for us, but often He calls us to make a radical commitment to give up something, or start doing something, that we may not feel like doing at all. What a crucible that can be! 


We can know what is right and exercise our wills to do the right thing; but when we are under pressure, it can be very difficult to keep holding on to God and His promises. That’s because we are weak and fearful. Therefore, one of the important strengths of the Christian is perseverance, the ability to keep going despite wanting to give up.


“In order to receive God’s help, man must realize his weakness and deficiency; he must apply his own mind to the great change to be wrought in himself; he must be aroused to earnest and persevering prayer and effort. Wrong habits and customs must be shaken off; and it is only by determined endeavor to correct these errors and to conform to right principles that the victory can be gained. —Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 248.

To the study guide’s credit, it stops short of Last Generation Theology. There is no claim in the lesson that the second advent is predicated on sinlessness or character perfection. However, while the ends are different, the means echo—so similar, in fact, that I was reminded of an old Spectrum article. In “Why I No Longer Believe in Last Generation Theology,” written in 2014, Sam Millen states: 

I tried to have only pure thoughts, and to conquer my temper and other character flaws. . . . Even though we were told that we could overcome sin through Christ’s power, the focus was not on Jesus. I focused on my behavior. How was I performing?  Isn’t that what the whole universe was supposedly focused on? Every time I messed up, I knew I would be lost unless I repented and started again from scratch. That was not a joyful Christian experience. It was miserable!

I feel bad for those who will read this week’s lesson and find their Christian-crucible pain encouraged. It seems to say that the more miserable a person is, the better they are going to be. Some might be inspired, but this sort of crucible Christianity has left a legacy of misery. Caveat lector! It’s not ultra-Last Generation Theology, but the language of the lesson offers its readers a potentially painful penultimate theological gateway.  


Alexander Carpenter is executive editor of Spectrum

Title image: No Saben el Camino (They Don’t Know the Way) by Francisco Goya from The Disasters of War, ca. 1813–14 (public domain).

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