Stephen Terry, Director


Still Waters Ministry

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About Good Works


"What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead."

"But someone will say, 'You have faith; I have deeds.'"

"Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds." James 2:14-18, NIV

The relationship between faith and works has long been in tension within the Christian community. Within the Seventh-day Adventist fellowship, the struggle has been particularly sharp. This is because from the very early days of the denomination, we have presented a unique view of the Investigative Judgment instigated by Hiram Edson s claimed insights while walking through a field of corn. He stated that the cleansing of the sanctuary mentioned in Daniel 8:14 was not the earth as the evangelist William Miller had predicted but instead referred to Jesus moving from the Holy Place to the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle in heaven. Coupled with this concept was the idea that when Jesus finished that work, probation would be closed and no one else could be saved. This was a projection of the original Shut Door doctrine to occur at some future date very near the Parousia. The Shut Door doctrine originally taught that probation had already closed in the mid-19th century. Another aspect of the doctrine was that those who were living when probation closed would need to be perfect as Christ will have left the heavenly sanctuary to come to claim his people and therefore could not intercede for them. Perfectionism was thus woven into the theological fabric of Seventh-day Adventism almost from its foundation. The troubling implication of this is the idea that the founders believed they were the prefect ones, who had already passed through the shut door to salvation. Denominational history reveals otherwise. While I will not be dealing directly with the issue here, this perfectionism also makes getting the idea of the Seventh-day Sabbath correct particularly appealing as part and parcel of being perfect.

Works of all sorts done by the believer became essential to salvation, sometimes developing ridiculous extremes even as it did in ancient Israel. In modern times, it could mean not being allowed to go in the water on Sabbath deeply enough to cause rolled up pants cuffs to be dampened. In ancient Israel, it could mean pinning a handkerchief to your garments so it could not be defined as carrying an extra burden on the Sabbath. But despite all of the rules written and unwritten, modern Christians achieved perfection no more than ancient Israelites. Like Paul, everyone seemed to come to the same point, proclaiming, "For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing...What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?" (Romans 7:18-19, 24) Into this frustration came a novel theology for the denomination, presented at the 1888 General Conference Session. That theology, righteousness by faith, is a theological structure built upon the same foundation that originally delivered Martin Luther from his struggles with perfectionist theology when he discovered Romans 1:7, "For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed--a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: 'The righteous will live by faith.'" Two young men, Alonzo T. Jones and Earl J. Waggoner, sharing primarily Bible texts, presented the idea that we are not saved by perfect obedience, but by faith in Christ and that our condemnation has been set aside by Christ. This was meant to echo Paul's statement regarding resolution of the dissonance he felt over obedience, "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." (Romans 8:1) While James White, steeped in the perfectionism of the Investigative Judgment Theology wished to challenge this novel upstart theology from Jones and Waggoner, his wife, Ellen, wholeheartedly endorsed it. As a result, since that day, Seventh-day Adventism has suffered from a theological schizophrenia due to the dissonance between the two perspectives. Uncomfortable with this conflict, some have tried to meld the two, holding that works and faith together are the formula for salvation. But this results in a theological compromise satisfying to neither party in the long term.

The present rift within Seventh-day Adventism is indicative of the inadequacy of the compromise. On the one hand, we have the proponents of Last Generation Theology, largely influenced by M. L. Andreasan's book, "The Sanctuary Service," especially the chapter "The Last Generation." This group adheres closely to the theology of the mid-19th century Investigative Judgment and the perfectionism inherent in that doctrine. While for most of these that perfect obedience is focused on the observance of the Decalogue, some carry it further and require obedience to all Old Testament festivals and ceremonies, eschewing holidays and practices not specifically mentioned in scripture. This stance also assumes a perfect understanding of scripture and its context based on a literalist approach to the text. While no one has ever provided evidence that they had achieved such perfection and would be suspect, even by other perfectionists, if they did, complete perfection is nonetheless commonly presented as salvific and essential.

On the other hand, a more progressive trend exists within Adventism and is well explained in the writings of Morris Venden. In his book, "Never Without an Intercessor," he refutes the idea that we will have to stand on our own perfection at any point prior to the Parousia. He also harmonizes with the message presented to the 1888 General conference by presenting that our salvation is dependent not upon our perfect works but upon those of Christ, accepted by faith on our behalf. In his book, "Modern Parables," he explains that works are not what makes us Christian. Instead, good works flow because of our being Christian. He illustrates this with an apple tree. The tree does not produce apples in order to be an apple tree. It produces apples because it is an apple tree. By the same token, we do not produce good works to be saved. We produce good works because we have been saved by the glorious grace of Jesus Christ. Paul presents a similar metaphor in his letter to the Roman Church. "...some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root." (Romans 11:17) While his fruit tree is an olive, the principle is the same. It is the nourishment through our connection with Christ that grants us life and the fruit comes naturally as a property of the fruit tree producing it. Again, not in order to become the fruit tree, but because we are a part of that fruit tree that by definition produces according to its kind.

Why did Jesus make this possible? It is his nature to do so. He told his followers, "He who has seen me has seen the Father." (John 14:9) What is the Father like? John, perhaps because of his close contact with Jesus wrote, "God is love." (1 John 4:8) Jesus therefore brought us salvation as a loving act. (John 3:16-17) Despite our being enemies, he came to save us. (Romans 5:10) In the beginning we were created in God's image. (Genesis 1:27) That image is love. What he offers through Jesus is an opportunity to restore that image. Through untold millennia we have lost the ability to bear loving fruit as God does. He defines perfection as a loving character like his. Jesus put it like this: "I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

Returning to the fruit tree metaphor, just as Jesus died equally both for enemy and friend alike, the fruit tree offers its fruit to all without condition. The apple tree has no desire to withhold its fruit from the worst miscreant or the most loving saint and will freely share its fruit to all undeserving or not. This is what the love of God flowing up through our branches leads us to become, for as the loving image and character of God is restored in us, we will also offer, without pre-conditions, our fruit born from love offered to us without preconditions of our worthiness to receive such an offer.

We should note some additional aspects of the fruit tree metaphor specifically addressed to those who wish to be judges of apple trees and their fruit. An apple or olive tree does not begin to bear fruit until it is four to five years old. Nonetheless, it is an apple or olive tree, even while not bearing fruit. Also, in general, fruit trees share similar properties regarding sharing their fruit. Cherry trees, plum trees, pear trees and their ilk all share their fruit without pre-conditions regarding the eater's worthiness. Regardless of our denomination, regardless of what fruit is borne in our orchard, we were all created to share love unconditionally, even as God does. If this is how nature was created to function, if this is how God's character is, if this is the image we were created in, does it not stand to reason that bringing ourselves to the Master Gardener to be restored to our former beauty would be the most wonderful thing we could do? We can be revived with the light of Christ and the water of baptism will refresh our roots. Then the Holy Spirit will guide us as we grow to more faithfully emulate the loving character of God. (Acts 2:38)




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Scripture marked (NIV) taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide. Used by permission. NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION and NIV are registered trademarks of Biblica, Inc. Use of either trademark for the offering of goods or services requires the prior written consent of Biblica US, Inc.