By Reinder Bruinsma … It was more than twenty years ago, but it is an experience I will not easily forget. I received a message with an urgent request. Would I please come and visit brother Jones (not his real name)? He was terminally ill and was eager to see me before he would die. Our brother was a member of one of the Adventist churches in Amsterdam, but I was not his pastor. I was, at the time, in charge of the Dutch Adventist publishing house. So, I wondered why my visit was important to our brother.
I knew who brother Jones was, but, frankly, I did not like him. He was one of those persons who are always right in their interpretation of the Bible, who always wants to have the last word in Sabbath School, and who knows exactly how a real Adventist should live.
But what could I do? I went to see him the day after receiving the message. When admitted to the room where he lay in his bed, he wanted no one else to be present. He told me to look under the bed for a tin box. When I found it, he instructed me to open it and to look inside. I saw a pack of 1000 guilder notes. (This was before we had the Euro.) “You may use this for your ministry,” I was told.
Somehow, I knew instinctively that something did not add up. I therefore asked my treasurer to put the money in the safe. I wanted to know where the money had come from before we would use it. Brother Jones lived for about three more weeks and during a few pastoral visits, the local pastor discovered how brother Jones had acquired the 30,000 guilders (worth about 15,000 dollars at the time). Just a few months earlier, brother Jones’ older sister had died. He had been appointed to care for her estate. Her savings were in the tin box that I had been given. The sister of our brother was a Roman Catholic, and she had left instructions that the money should go to her parish church. But, brother Jones, being a truth-filled, prophecy-loving, Catholic-hating Adventist, did not want to see any money go into the “Babylonian coffers” of the Catholic Church. He knew a much better destination and decided to re-route the money.
Of course, I made sure the money ended up with the local Catholic parish. However, the experience made a deep impression on me. Here was a church member who was convinced of the truth of every syllable of the Fundamental Beliefs, who was an avid reader of all the Ellen G. White books that had been published in the Dutch language, and who would spend a good number of hours every week in mining all the “present truth” from the Sabbath School lesson quarterlies—but what good had it done him? On his deathbed, this one hundred percent ultra-orthodox Adventist was prepared to lie and cheat. Of course, it was for the good of “the work of God”, but it was despicable deception, nonetheless.
It’s time to find out what difference it makes
The experience with brother Jones inspired me to write a little book. It was published by Pacific Press, and the editor who guided the manuscript through the pre-press process, gave it one of the longest titles in recent Adventist publishing history: It’s Time to Stop Rehearsing What We Believe and Start Looking at What Difference It Makes. The experience with brother Jones has stayed with me. I asked myself the question: How can one be so religious and so focused on being doctrinally correct, and yet, at the same time, so blatantly ignore the moral principles of the kingdom of our Lord? Is it possible that we constantly ‘rehearse” our doctrinal beliefs, but that this remains a useless exercise and makes no difference in how we live?
I decided to take another good look at each of the Fundamental Beliefs—27 at that time; the 28th would be added in 2005—and to ask in each case: What difference does it make in my every-day life that I believe this? It became a fascinating exercise. I must admit that there are a few Fundamental Beliefs that did not seem to make very much difference in daily life, whatever way I looked at them. But I was determined to find some element that made a difference. For if a doctrine does not make any difference in the Christian praxis, it might as well be eliminated from the list.
Let me just mention a few examples. Fundamental Belief No. 3 is about God as our heavenly Father. So, I asked: How does a better understanding of the Fatherhood of God help me to be a better father for my children? Belief No. 4 is about Jesus Christ. This raised the question: How does a better grasp of who Jesus was help me to become a person who resembles Him? How will becoming aware of how Jesus broke with traditions as He served the people He met, give me the courage to be a non-traditional person in my support for others. Belief No. 10 deals with the Sabbath. Worshipping on the seventh rather than on the first day of the week surely makes me different from all the other fifty or so people who live in our apartment building. But does the experience of celebrating the Lord’s Day add an extra dimension to my life? Does it not only make me stand out from the crowd, but does it make a difference for me by importing divine peace into my busy life, and by providing me with the unique time slot that I need to cultivate my relationship with God, with my loved ones, and with God’s creation?
Wrestling with this pivotal question, what real-life difference my doctrinal beliefs make was extremely meaningful for me, but, apparently, it also struck a chord with many readers. This small book brought me more reactions than anything else I wrote before or after. Again, and again, people wrote me or told me that what I had written had given their faith a real boost and had made their religion into something more than a set of religious teachings to which one is supposed to give intellectual assent.
“The truth will set you free”
In John 8: 31 we read how Jesus is in a conversation with a group of Jews “who had believed him.” Jesus tells them that they will be real disciples of His if they “hold” to his teachings. Then follows a crucial statement, when Jesus declares: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (vs. 32). Note that the truth will not simply give additional information, and that it does not just satisfy our intellectual curiosity. No, the truth will do something very special for us. It will set us free. It will make us a better person. It will make us more balanced, more tolerant, more outgoing and more content. How? Because it is that the kind of truth that comes from Above and is, first, personal, and relational. This is what Jesus underlined when He told his disciples: I am the way, and the truth, and the life. Knowing Jesus is not limited to knowing about Jesus. It is more than theological learning and more than saying “yes” to several Fundamental Beliefs. Knowing Him is having a personal relationship with Him; it is being guided by the hand of our heavenly brother (Hebrews 2:11).
The apostle Paul is the foremost theologian of the New Testament. At times, his theology is rather complicated. Even Peter acknowledged that Paul’s “letters contain some things that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). But for Paul, theology as a system of beliefs—important though it may be—never stands by itself. We consistently find in his letters that Paul’s theology is translated into praxis. The question “What is the content of our faith?” is linked to the question, “How does our faith change us into a better human being, in the service of others?
Perhaps the Letter to the Ephesians illustrates this principle most clearly. After having given a theological explanation of what “living in Christ” means and underlining the importance of unity in the Body of Christ, Paul switches gears and urges the believers in Ephesus to live as children of the light: “Be imitators of God . . . and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us, and gave himself up for us, as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (5:1). In the remainder of the letter, there follows lot of advice that guides us in our various relationships. Or, if you want another example of how faith is linked to praxis, go to the Letter to the Colossians. Some issues in the earlier part of this letter continue to puzzle many theological minds, but then the apostle focuses “on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (3:10).
God will judge our brother Jones. He may well have possessed some redeeming qualities that I did not detect. But he helped me to look beyond truth as a system of theological statements to Truth as a relationship with Jesus Christ, which gives meaning to my life as I continue to “grow in Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).
–Reinder Bruinsma, PhD, has served the Seventh-day Adventist Church in publishing, education, and church administration on three continents. He recently received a royal decoration for his contributions to the life of the church and to society. His forthcoming new book is about the how, when, and why of the Second Coming of Christ. He writes from the Netherlands where he lives with his wife Aafie. Email him at: [email protected]