by Kevin Paulson
Greater New York Conference
Recent acts of global terror mean the death of an illusion and the key to the church's destined glory.
It was a horror beyond imagining. And I watched it happen.
I had left my home on Manhattan's Upper East Side for a mid-town appointment with a fellow pastor, with whom I was to ride to Camp Berkshire to prepare for the Greater New York Conference's coming camp meeting. It was Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001. Mild and sunny, it looked like an ideal New York day.
Until 8:50 a.m.
At about that moment I emerged from the subway station at the corner of 12th Street and 7th Avenue. Instantly I noticed people talking excitedly into cell phones, pointing in the direction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The first plane had already crashed into the North Tower. Smoke poured into the sky.
Moments later I hurried to our church on 11th Street, where the pastor waited for me. I asked immediately that he turn on the car radio. Together we listened as the second plane struck the second tower, removing all doubt that this was a calculated act of terror. Soon the radio announced the closing of all bridges and tunnels into and out of Manhattan. Leaving the pastor's car on 11th Street, we walked to the banks of the Hudson. Hardly able to believe our eyes, we watched as the two towers imploded, one after the other. Screaming office workers hurled themselves from the collapsing structure, some using jackets as makeshift parachutes, desperate to escape flaming death.
No Hollywood script could have contrived a scene more terrible. More American casualties were inflicted in a single day than at any time since the bloody Battle of Antietam at the height of the Civil War.
Death of an Illusion. It doesn't take a novelist like Tom Clancy or a movie maker like Steven Spielberg to imagine how events could flow from the recent tragedy. God is on our side, declared President Bush in his address to the nation September 20, 2001. The whole world is coming together now, insisted Secretary of State Colin Powell on the September 23 broadcast of ABCs This Week. No sitting on the fence is going to be accepted by anyone, stated King Abdullah of Jordan on the same broadcast.
Not many more attacks of this nature, especially if the weapons become more than conventional, would be needed to convince the world that nothing is safe and that security concerns mandate major adjustments to life and liberty. A recent New York magazine article by Tucker Carlson on the prospect of germ warfare describes in graphic detail what could happen if this occurred and how civil liberties would most assuredly be affected.1 Even more recently, Newsweek reported the arrest of hundreds of United States residents of Middle Eastern descent, detained without charges, subjected to official indifference and at times abuse.2
Returning to God? Already leaders of the American Religious Right are calling the recent terrorist acts a judgment from God for the sins of the nation. For the moment, whether or not this is true is beside the point. The point is that in the face of universal terror, a global returning to God by means of civil coercion is no longer some abstract prophetic prediction.
If nothing else, this surely means the death of a cherished illusion among some Adventists. For years they have claimed that Ellen Whites prediction of an end-time Sunday law, with global unity against Gods people through a religio-political alliance, might have been possible in nineteenth-century America but couldnt possibly take place in our enlightened modern world. Now, however, we are forced to wonder how anyone could logically continue to harbor such doubts in the face of the present danger.
The Inspired Summons
Disasters like the recent one remind the Seventh-day Adventist Bible student of the two poles of tension involved in preaching last-day events: the readiness of the world, and the readiness of the church. Sad to say, the world has always been more ready than the church.
Jesus spoke of how various calamities and world conditions will inform us of the nearness of His return, and He urged our need to prepare: Now learn a parable of the fig tree; when his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is near. So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors. . . . Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of Man cometh (Mt 24:32-33, 44).
Ellen White elaborated further on these events and the preparation required to face them:
The time of trouble, such as never was, is soon to open upon us; and we shall need an experience which we do not now possess and which many are too indolent to obtain. It is often the case that trouble is greater in anticipation than in reality; but this is not true of the crisis before us. The most vivid presentation cannot reach the magnitude of the ordeal (The Great Controversy, p. 622).
We are on the very verge of the time of trouble, and perplexities that are scarcely dreamed of are before us (Testimonies for the Church, 9:43).
We are coming to a crisis which, more than any previous time since the world began, will demand the entire consecration of every one who has named the name of Christ (Gospel Workers, p. 323).
In the midst of the present peril, who indeed can doubt the relevance of these warnings?
Dependence. Adventism's end-time focus on global calamities in connection with the last days is not for the sake of fearmongering but to help us recognizeand in many cases recoverour total dependence on God. For at the bottom line, both Scripture and Ellen White are clear that God is not waiting for a certain quota of natural or human tragedies to be filled before Jesus can come. He isnt waiting for evil to get any worse.
Rather, the inspired writings are clear that God is waiting for His church. He is waiting for that entire consecration of faith and life that will not only prepare us for the time of trouble but settle forever the issues of the great controversy.
Thus, through the smoke of the fallen twin towers and the deepening gloom about us, we can glimpse Gods challenge to His wayward remnant.
What Manner of Persons Ought Ye To Be?
The first three verses of Revelation 7 give the true reason for the delay of the final events:
And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree. And I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God: and he cried with a loud voice to the four angels, to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea, saying, Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads (Rev 7:1-3).
Elsewhere, Scripture links this sealing imagery with the Holy Spirits presence in the heart as a guarantee, or earnest, of His work in us (2 Cor 1:22; Eph 1:13, 14; 4:30). This inward presence of the Spirit enables us, according to the same Bible writer, to be filled with all the fullness of God (Eph 3:19). No wonder Ellen White declared:
Those who receive the seal of the living God and are protected in the time of trouble must reflect the image of Jesus fully (Early Writings, p. 71).
In other words, revelation is telling us that the failure of Gods end-time people to allow the full accomplishment of the Spirits sanctifying work is ultimately responsible for the delay of Jesus coming.
Preparation Needed. The apostle Peter described what sort of preparation Jesus coming will require and how this preparation will in fact hasten the advent:
But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat? . . . Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for such things, be diligent that ye may be found of him in peace, without spot, and blameless (2 Pet 3:10-12, 14).
Modern Bible translations are even clearer that the hastening of Jesus return is accomplished by the godly living here described. The Revised Standard Version uses the phrase hastening the coming, the New International Version says speed its coming, the New English Bible work to hasten it on, and Todays English Version (Good News Bible) do your best to make it come soon.
Character Issues. We find the same theme elsewhere in the New Testament:
Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure. . . . Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous (1 Jn 3:2-3, 7).
The 144,000 sealed saints are thus described: And in their mouth was found no guile: for they are without fault before the throne of God (Rev 14:5). These words recall another New Testament passage: Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow in His steps: who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth (1 Pet 2:21-22). The Old Testament seems to have anticipated this end-time expectation for Gods people, in the words of the prophet Zephaniah:
The remnant of Israel shall not do iniquity, nor speak lies; neither shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouth (Zeph 3:13).
Ellen White therefore marched in lockstep with Scripture when she wrote: When the character of Christ shall be perfectly reproduced in His people, then He will come to claim them as His own (Christs Object Lessons, p. 69). The biblical evidence we have seen effectively demolishes any theory among Adventists these days that belief in an end-time perfecting of Gods people as a means of hastening Christs coming is a product of Ellen Whites theology rather than the Bible.
It has likewise become popular among some Adventists to speculate as to the devils strategy against the church and its mission. But we dont need to speculate. In prophetic vision Ellen White was shown a council meeting between Satan and his evil angels regarding how best to destroy the Seventh-day Adventist church. She heard Satan say:
Through those that have a form of godliness but know not the power, we can gain many who would otherwise do us harm. . . . Those of this class who are apt and intelligent will serve as decoys to draw others into our snares. Many will not fear their influence, because they profess the same faith. We will thus lead them to conclude that the requirements of Christ are less strict than they once believed, and that by conformity to the world they will exert a greater influence with worldlings. Thus they will separate from Christ; then they will have no strength to resist our power, and erelong they will be ready to ridicule their former zeal and devotion (Testimonies to Ministers, p. 474).
As we survey our church, which despite all remains the object of our Lords supreme regard, we cannot but see in full bloom the diabolical plan revealed to Gods servant in the above statement.
False Gospels. More than one false gospel continues to take its toll in the church. Most of these promise an effortless path to heaven, without the need for strict faithfulness to the written counsel of God. Precious words like grace and acceptance have become code words for an easy, victory-denying salvation of which the Bible knows nothing. Faithfulness in an ever-widening range of lifestyle choices is being dismissed as legalism. Some claim that in order to reach the unchurched, we must modify worship forms and lifestyle expectations so as not to offend the attractive, successful people with whom we seek to fill our pews.
As I write this, the departure of yet another seeker-oriented pastor from the denomination is making waves in North American Adventism. His letter of withdrawal, now making its rounds on the internet, explainsamong other thingswhy he no longer believes the Sabbath to be binding on the Christians conscience. Much of his reasoning is based on distinguishing between Christ and the truth which alone reveals Himan unscriptural distinction, popular for much of the last three decades in First World Adventism. Without question this mans Adventist education, like much of my own, was dominated by the refrain, Doctrine is nice, but Jesus is better. A key component of this pastors pilgrimage, by his own admission, was his involvement in the Willow Creek-inspired contemporary church growth movement.
Lost Congregations. More than five significant congregations, and even more pastors, have been lost to the church through this misguided movement. Its logic, attractive to many, is a dagger pointed at the churchs heart: Define Jesus in such a way that uncomfortable truths about faith and obedience are left to the individual, and more people will feel safe at church. The sharper features of the Adventist faith such as the Sabbath and the investigative judgment, with their unavoidable call to self-discipline and sacrifice, simply cannot co-exist with this comfort-saturated method of doing church.
How many more pastors and congregations need be lost before we at last recognize the inherent hostility to our faiththeologically and stylisticallyof this contemporary church growth movement?
Flouting the Church. We seem also to be entering an era in which the churchs duly voted policies are treated with increasing disrespect, even by some in responsible positions. The recent action by one union in North America to allow commissioned ministers (thereby including females) as well as ordained ministers to serve as its president is in direct violation of the clear Church Manual statement that the president of a conference should be an ordained minister of experience and good report.3
A prominent college in the same Division has brought great embarrassment to the church and its religious liberty teachings by its quest through the court system to receive state funds. The profoundest shame in all this is the colleges effort to prove its distance from the church in order to receive these funds. Despite clear remonstrances from high church officials, the college has continued its course.
In neither of these cases has the offending party suffered any disciplinary action. Any parent realizes what happens when a child is told not to do something, then does it anyway, and no adverse consequences result. What will happen in the church if this trend continues?
Many will doubtless find fault with the above concerns simply because they bring negative facts to light. To be sure, there is much good that God continues to accomplish through the witness of our beloved church. Precious souls in many lands, in ever-growing numbers, continue to be rescued from darkness into Gods marvelous light. The response of so many Adventists to the World Trade Center tragedy, and the help they have brought in these traumatic moments, warms and cheers the hearts of us all. As in the days of Elijah, God retains His seven thousandand morein Israel whose knees have not bowed unto Baal.
But our shortcomings remain serious, more so than at any time in the history of the Advent movement. The soothing rejoinder that weve always had problems, so what else is new? will simply not suffice. Too many among us have long memoriesmemories of a time when the church certainly wasnt perfect, but when one could not have imagined the present level of confusion in doctrines, morals, or worship practices. Our current problems may not be new in the strictest sense, and many believers worldwide are still standing firm. But the widespread tolerance of deviations from inspired standards in doctrinal, lifestyle, and other matters is very new and is of grave concern to many.
What can we do?
1. Seek the Lord daily for a new heart and a right spirit. Revival and reformation must start with individuals. More specifically, with ourselves. With me. Like David, each of us must cry, from the prostration of abased arrogance, Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me (Ps 51:10).
We must, at long last, give ourselves wholly to God as revealed in His written counsel, not as revealed by some subjective, personalized understanding of His will. Too much of the relationship theology in contemporary Adventism has evolved into a view of our walk with God as a negotiated settlement, a convenient arrangement in which God puts up with us and we with Him, politely agreeing to disagree on many issues along the way.
At a Greater New York Conference convocation held immediately after the recent tragedy, we closed the service by joining hands and singing, All to Jesus I Surrender. I was deeply moved. It was such a blessing to come together and give our hearts anew to the Lord. May it be our experience every day!
2. Recover our distinctive message with its biblical basis and its amplification in the writings of Ellen G. White. Too much experience-driven, feeling-based religion abounds in Adventism today. More and more of us seem less concerned with faithfulness to Gods Word than with what maintains our spiritual, psychological, and emotional comfort level. As a result, who knows us any more as people of the Book?
We need to spend less time with the writings of spiritual leaders, whether inside or outside Adventism, and much more with the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy writings. Many Adventists are more familiar with Max Lucado, Chuck Swindoll, and such best-selling books as Bruce Wilkinsons The Prayer of Jabez than they are with Inspiration. Some Adventists openly admit they would rather read Philip Yancey than Ellen White. Sad to say, something is wrong when the writings of an inspired messenger are permitted to take a back seat to those containing uninspired opinions.
Study Needed. The reason so many Adventists are fooled by current claims that our historic faith is unbiblical is that they arent taking time daily to study the Bible. Those deluded by the claim that Ellen White contradicts the Bible have clearly failed carefully to study either the Bible or Ellen White. And in our modern world of 24/7 jobs, rushing from work shift to home shift, hurrying from school and day care back home to late suppers and few sane moments, the enemy of souls offers numerous plausible, practical excuses for remaining ignorant of the great issues among us.
It is sobering to recall that in Christs parable of the great feast, the excuses offered by the guests for their non-attendance did not involve overtly sinful acts (Lk 14:18-20). Neither inspecting newly purchased land, proving ones oxen, nor marriage involve anything wrong. All involve necessary, practical aspects of life. None of the guests asked to be excused for the sake of a crooked business deal or some immoral relationship. Christ was obviously trying to tell us that if they take our minds from the best thing, even good things can land us outside His kingdom.
Even if it means major adjustments to our lives, we must take time to read and study the inspired materials. Neither pastors, church administrators, church publications, nor any other human source can be our authority in spiritual matters. Everything we read, hear, and experience must be tested by what God, through His written counsel, has revealed (Isa 8:20; Acts 17:11).
3. Faithful members at all levels of church life must take responsibility for their church.Contrary to what some believe, this is not the task of God alone, nor does it belong exclusively to leaders and pastors. It is the task of all.
Misconceptions. A variety of misconceptions often prevents faithful church members from fulfilling this responsibility. One is the erroneous belief that Christs parable of the wheat and tares means apostasy and sin should be left to grow unchecked until the Lord returns. But both Scripture and Ellen White are clear that open sin was not the focus of Christs parable and that the rooting out of such destructive forces in the faith community is a most essential obligation on the churchs part (Mt 18:15-17; 1 Cor 5:8-13; 2 Thess 3:14-15; Christs Object Lessons, p. 71; Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 578; Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary [Ellen G. White comments] 2:996, 5:1096).
Others falsely equate correcting and disciplining wrongdoers with harshness and a lack of humility; still others hold that if they just focus on the positive things in the church, keep on winning souls, and quietly practice a godly example, the evil in the church will somehow self-destruct while they keep their hands unsoiled. And the devil is quick to whisper in all our ears that we arent exactly flawless ourselves, so what business do we have seeking to curtail or rebuke the faults of others? More than one person of my acquaintance who has seen the need for reform has fallen for this line.
But when we stop to think, we all know the foolishness of these thoughts. If parents took these notions seriously, they would never correct their children. What responsible doctor would tell a cancer patient to ignore a malignant tumor and just focus on staying healthy and thus assume that the cancer will vanish by itself? If the above reasoning were true, the Bible would not contain such commands as the one in Isaiah, Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and show My people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins (Isa 58:1). It is time for faithful believers to stop keeping their convictions private.
4. Revive evangelism in the churchs home region. This will automatically follow spiritual revival and reformation. While we cant wait for a purified church in order to evangelize, we must remember the inspired warning that the Lord does not now work to bring many souls into the truth, because of the church members who have never been converted and those who were once converted but who have backslidden. What influence would these unconsecrated members have on new converts? Would they not make of no effect the God-given message which His people are to bear? (Testimonies for the Church, 6:371).
Already we see the revival of evangelism beginning with teams of young workers fanning out across North America, in large cities doing evangelism the Bible-based, old-fashioned way. Some of these crusades have baptized people in the hundreds yet have gone largely unnoticed by many who claim those methods dont work. God is showing us the way back to faithfulness, to purity, and to Him.
Culmination. The churchs evangelistic crescendo will culminate in the demonstration depicted in the following passages from the Lords messenger:
The last rays of merciful light, the last message of mercy to be given to the world, is a revelation of His character of love. The children of God are to manifest His glory. In their own life and character they are to reveal what the grace of God has done for them.
The light of the Sun of Righteousness is to shine forth in good worksin words of truth and deeds of holiness (Christs Object Lessons, pp. 415, 416).
The church, being endowed with the righteousness of Christ, is His depository, in which the wealth of His mercy, His love, His grace, is to appear in full and final display. . . . The gift of His Holy Spirit, rich, full, and abundant, is to be to His church as an encompassing wall of fire, which the powers of hell shall not prevail against. In their untainted purity and spotless perfection, Christ looks upon His people as the reward of all His suffering, His humiliation, and His love, and the supplement of His glory (Testimonies to Ministers, pp. 18, 19).
1. Tucker Carlson, Pox Americana, New York, Oct. 8, 2001, pp. 26, 99.
2. Evan Thomas and Michael Isikoff, Justice Kept in the Dark, Newsweek, Dec. 10, 2001, pp. 37-38.
3. Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual (2000 edition), p. 135.