Legalism in Adventist Sects
How does one make the transition from a legalistic sect to normal, or mainstream, Christianity?
First, it is essential to deal with the concept of legalism itself. The legalistic Adventist sects, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Christadelphians and the old-style Worldwide Church of God may vary in actual doctrine, but have many areas in common. They are all the product of the Adventist worldview developed by William Miller in the 19th century United States. This derives from a base in Jewish apocalypticism; and in fanaticism of such men as Thomas Muntzer and Joachim of Ffiore.
The excesses of such men would never have been able to ‘take off’ in the Old World dominated by such theological greats as Aquinas, Anselm, Luther and, later, Calvin. These men had been, generally, extremely solid in all of their biblical exegesis. Taking full account of all the Scriptures, they carefully and honestly uncovered the meaning of the inspired Hebrew and Greek text. They sought, sometimes accompanied by several hours of prayer each day, to bring out the full Biblical conception of such points as Justification, Atonement and Salvation. There may be some variation between their conclusions but only in comparatively peripheral areas. If one looks to the huge area of their agreement, there one will discover established Christian Doctrine.
New Frontiers, New Freedoms
One cannot stress enough the desire of the early Americans to be free of religious control, having often suffered in the Old World because of its excesses. This led to a powerful sense of independence, with a resulting desire to rediscover Christian community and experience. Much good came from this but it also led to an atmosphere in which more idiosyncratic beliefs were often tolerated in ways they would never have been in the Old World.
William Miller sought to refocus Christianity away from the previous focus on Christ’s atoning work on the Cross, to a new focus on the envisaged Second coming and on Bible prophecy (especially that found in Daniel and Revelation). He was drawing on strands which were in no way new. They had been attempted before in the Old World, but had not prospered because of the wide accessibility of a more deeply grounded, biblical theology. The New World, however, was determined to be ‘open’ religiously; this certainly came to assist the new, exciting Adventist worldview, providing an environment in which it could flourish.
All the Adventist-type cults and sects, as an American phenomenon, can be traced back to the ‘groundwork’ of Miller. It matters not whether we speak of Joseph Smith, Ellen White, Hiram Edson, Joseph Bates or Charles Taze Russell (who became the first leader of the Watchtower Society – later Jehovah’s Witnesses — in 1896.) Herbert W. Armstrong was very much of this theological lineage in all of his influences.
Miller’s new approach had proven to be so popular that by 1844, F.S. Mead calculates,
“… There were between 50,000 and 1000,000 Adventists in North America.” (F.S. Mead, A Handbook of Denominations in the United States, p 20)
David Koresh, of Waco, Texas fame, was also an Adventist, originally of the Seventh Day Adventist sect, later leaving to pursue his own highly idiosyncratic theological path.
Miller, of course, is quite famous for his date-setting for Christ’s return based upon his understanding of the apocalyptic books of Daniel, and Revelation. His dates failed, leading to many giving up Adventism and some even committing suicide and others going into mental asylums! But, not deterred by his failure, the Adventists who were to follow him, never gave up Miller’s approach of refocusing Adventists away from the Cross and toward the Second Coming. This included prophecy, legalism (in various forms) and, inevitably, all the pet theories of the founder of the particular sect.
Miller, like almost every sect/cult founding Adventists who would follow him, had little deep knowledge of the Word of God and had not been a long-term practicing Christian. He had never studied Greek or Hebrew and it is known that he only used the Bible and Crudens concordance in his work. All the founding Adventists followed a ‘Me-only’ approach in which they believed that God was revealing new truth – only to them! They even rejected the new understandings of other Adventists. In short, their approach became notable for their sublime sense of self-sufficiency!
These men and women had never been masters of even one of the biblical languages in which the inspired texts were originally written. Nor were they even prepared to check their conclusions against the more time-honoured conclusions of men such as Luther, Calvin, Augustine, and others. Consequently, it has been easy for Adventists to hold their ground, since they have never felt the need to defend their teachings against the more thoroughly biblically-grounded teachings of the Christian world. In Adventism itself, typically, the people are held in subjection to various charismatic leaders and do not dare pose questions. Further, most such sects have painted a picture (also very much part of Adventism) that they alone have all truth and that those who hold other biblical views are the tools of Satan!
Mainstream Christianity upholds justification by faith alone, while no Adventist cult/sect can wholly go along with this. After all, if one is finally justified, or made right with God, because of holding to the sufficiency of the Gospel then why the need for Adventism with its morass of additional teachings? In some ways, it really is as simple as this. Of course, some Adventist groups do carefully attempt to uphold the bona fide Christian position in their publications. However, as every former Adventist knows this is not the way it is for those within the group. The teaching is usually that, yes, Christ died for us, but it is not enough just to believe this, one also has to… and here the legalism is introduced. Before I consider what the Bible says about this pivotal matter of justification, let me just point out a very quick way of seeing through Adventism’s flaws:
1. The Apostle Paul wrote Galatians and Romans (especially Galatians) to counteract the influence of Judaizers. They taught that accepting Christ’s sacrifice was insufficient of itself to save, that there was a requirement to hold on to facets of Old Covenant law and practice. In hotly rejecting their claims, Paul produces some of his strongest language, even saying,
“As we have said before, so now I say again, If any on is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed.” – Galatians 1:9
No serious student of the Bible is in any doubt as to what Paul is referring to here. The problem was Judaizing teachers, who did accept Christ, but believed that there also existed a requirement to observe Old Covenant law. The whole problem was justification, and its means. Paul reacts strongly in his ever-vigorous defence of the true Gospel. Sects and cults may allow themselves the luxury of quoting odd verses from the New Testament in order to back up their points (proof-texting) but theologians and all serious Bible students go further. They would insist on looking at books like Galatians within their context – being careful not to impose their own views. Just what is Paul saying in this book? Again, serious Bible students do not question what he is saying because it is clear, even in the English (more still in the Greek)
While the background to Galatians is incipient legalism from a Jewish stance, the background to Paul’s epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians is early Gnosticism. This was one of the first heresies, which entered the Church. These people believed that Man could not directly approach God but that God had to be approached through intermediaries. These intermediaries had to be Angels and they too had to be worshiped. Some of their ideas were starting to affect some Christians, hence Paul’s comment.
“Let no one disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, taking his stand on visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind.” – Colossians 2:18
Paul shows himself to be ever eager to challenge all ideas that Christ was insufficient to save. These early heretical influences always attacked the subject of justification.
The Gospel: Legalism v Grace
What, then is the biblical teaching on justification? Can Christians be clear about it? The answer is, ‘Yes’. It is necessarily made abundantly clear because its correct understanding is fundamental to perceiving the truth of the Gospel! If we are to come away from the influences of legalism it is vital we grasp these fundamentals.
The New Testament defines the substance of the Gospel on several occasions. See 1 Corinthians 15:1-14; 1 Corinthians 2:1-2; Romans 10:9-10; Acts 16:30-31, and Romans 4: 24-25. We may also consider Paul’s defense before Agrippa, Acts 26:1-23. All these texts, and others too, define the message of the Gospel which Paul preached, centering on the Cross, and what Christ achieved there. This is the message of the Gospel; repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ – the Kingdom is at hand! (Those accepting and personally applying Christ’s sacrifice are brought into Christ’s Kingdom, now, by the Holy Spirit). This is not the place for a full rebuttal of the Adventist belief that ‘The Kingdom is at hand’ refers to the Second Coming, but it patently does not.
Under the New Covenant, Man is ‘made right’ with God, in other words justified, by accepting Christ – there are no other grounds! The Adventist cults and sects do not fully appreciate, nor understand, what occurred upon the Cross; an exchange occurred. Christ took the sins of the world upon His shoulders, which is why the Father had to temporarily turn His back on Him, for God cannot live with sin. Christ had to be fully Man and fully God for this to take place. This rules out the Arianism of Jehovah’s Witness, in which Christ is not God, simply the highest creation of God.
The second part of the exchange is that the righteousness of God becomes imputed to repentant sinners who accept Christ. So, Christ took upon Himself the sins of all who would believe in Him, and these people take upon themselves the righteousness of God. The oft-occurring statement in Romans, “The Righteousness of God” refers to this completed work of Christ upon the Cross. In both cases, the exchange was forensic or judicial – a matter of attributing guilt and responsibility (as in a court of law).
Christ did not internally infuse sin or become sinful in His last few moments upon the cross. Neither is it possible for repentant Man to truly ‘infuse’ the very holiness of God. But is it imputed to him. It is all a matter of the grace of God. Of course, the Christian should then be expected to exhibit signs of having received God’s grace in his/her life, having received the Holy Spirit, which is a tiny bit of Eternal Life which God allows to dwell in Christians right now.
Read what Paul says of Israel in Romans 10:1-13, also carefully read all of Galatians. Christians are granted a freedom in Christ, which was not available to those under the law. The law was a child-trainer to bring us to Christ – Galatians 3:23-29. We are now to be a people ‘of the Spirit’ – not the letter since we have, through the Spirit, a tiny part of the mind of Christ within us.
It will thus be appreciated, that a correct understanding of Justification, how we are ‘made right’ with, or reconciled to God is intrinsic to the Gospel. That is what the Gospel message is all about! It tells us that everything that happened under the Old Covenant only prefigured or looked forward to Christ. Sacrifices could never truly cancel out sins, only the supreme sacrifice of Christ could do that. Further, even impeccable law-keeping could not do that, which is an important part of Paul’s message (as an ex-Pharisee).
The moment any Adventist sect founder comes up with their version of the gospel this involves legalism. Once they require adherence to the import of their own teachings, the plot is lost! Paul has already illustrated that the Gospel doesn’t need supporting with extra philosophies (Ephesians and Colossians), nor with any partial adherence to the Old Covenant (Galatians and Romans). Believers in Christ were not to attempt to put ‘New wine into old bottles’ (Luke 5), the Old Covenant is, for Christians , now obsolete (Hebrews 8:13).
So, does this mean that Christians are now free to break all of the Ten Commandments? Hardly, because that would be living a life of plain contradiction; we would be showing ourselves to be children of Satan – not Christ. We now follow, ‘The Law of Christ’, being led by the Spirit. We don’t reject the law but we look upon it in a very different way now, knowing that Christ took its penalty upon Himself at the Cross. There is now no condemnation (Romans 8:1-2) for we are not under the law but under grace.
So, as Paul is at pains to explain in Romans, a new way of achieving the righteousness of God, without the dictates of the law, is revealed in Christ. This gives the Jew with their knowledge of law, no advantage – righteousness is received through faith in Christ.
So does this mean that all the established Protestant churches have got it right? Concerning their perception of the Gospel, yes. But they have occasionally taken on some dreadful influences. The rationalistic, God-denying, liberal theology of the last century, for instance, has taken a terrible toll and has been a destroyer of churches. But good conservative evangelical theology has fought back very well producing a plethora of biblically sound writers and theologians, especially in the UK. Names such as C.S. Lewis, John Stott, Alister McGrath and Martyn Lloyd-Jones spring to mind.
The voluminous writings of these men, and others, is biblical, entirely sound, and a great asset to those who would wish to grow in their knowledge of the faith. But there are still liberals around who, while writing about Scripture, would deny numerous clear statements contained therein. Of these Don Cupitt is one of the worst offenders. Cupitt reduces God to a mere concept. His Christ enables us to live more fulfilled lives, but doesn’t actually exist. Paul Tillich is another theologian who, earlier in the twentieth century, greatly perverted the Scriptures but his influence has now greatly waned.