By Mark Johnson … “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations, and then shall the end come” (Matthew 24:14, KJV).
Enjoying time with children and grandchildren is a blessing from the Lord. So is sleep. Often, however, these are mutually exclusive pleasures. Parents and grandparents soon learn that any “late” morning slumber is sleeping on borrowed time.
The world, too, is sleeping on borrowed time. An incontrovertible argument that change is needed in the Christian church can be summarized in a simple phrase—we are still here.
Judged by Matthew 24, the gospel has not yet been given to the world. Apparently, either “all the world” has not been reached, the true “gospel of the kingdom” has not yet been preached, or it has been presented in a manner that is not a winsome “witness unto all nations.”
Is it possible that in spite of our well-thought-out official Adventist beliefs, practices, and widespread evangelistic campaigns that we, too, have failed to appropriately preach the gospel? We pride ourselves on our worldwide presence, but as Christ noted, missionaries can end up making children of hell, too (Matthew 23:15). We have also been told by Ellen White in The Desire of Ages that, “Had the church of Christ done her appointed work as the Lord ordained, the whole world would before this have been warned, and the Lord Jesus would have come to our earth in power and great glory.”
The most satisfying response to our dilemma would be to conclude that we do, indeed, have the true gospel of the kingdom and we are presenting it in an attractive manner—we have just not yet reached all the world. Neither of the other two options is acceptable, but nothing could be more serious than to find that we are actually misrepresenting the gospel of Christ, despite our apparent success.
Many reasons have been suggested for why we are still here. Most of them call for the church to go back—back to a legendary time when the Adventist message was pure, our witness was alluring, and the manner in which it was offered made it almost irresistible. Unfortunately, those times, if they ever existed, pre-date my experience with the organization.
It has also been suggested that what is needed is a return to the purity of the Protestant church in the Reformation period. Some of Ellen White’s observations, however, cast doubt on that option as well. “Luther and his co-laborers accomplished a noble work for God . . . It was their work to break the fetters of Rome, and to give the Bible to the world; yet there were important truths which they failed to discover, and grave errors which they did not renounce.”
Thus, we should not look to the past for reform—change must move us forward.
There are many problems in today’s Adventist church. We act as if our facilities are country clubs instead of hospitals. We dogmatically limit the God-given potential of women and members of the LGBTQ community. We are the world’s most diverse Protestant church, yet racial tensions persist. We have lost the trust of many of our most generous donors. We do not do enough to reach and help the neglected and downtrodden. We do not adequately care for the earth, and we seem to have little to offer those of higher status in society.
But I believe the real reason we are still here, sleeping on borrowed time, is because our evangelistic outreach is upside down.
Morris Venden raised this issue in his series of sermons on the similarities between the Exodus and Advent movements. He pointed out that God’s work with the children of Israel began with a magnificent revelation of His love and mercy. He next worked to build their trust in Him. Finally, He presented them with His law, the blueprint of how they should live. Elder Venden then commented that we Adventists have frequently gotten this sequence of messages backwards, or upside down, in our evangelical outreach.
The pattern mirrors Christ’s approach. Ellen White writes, “He mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, ‘Follow Me.’”
This is to be our method, too. “There is need of coming close to the people by personal effort . . . The poor are to be relieved, the sick cared for, the sorrowing and the bereaved comforted, the ignorant instructed, the inexperienced counseled. We are to weep with those that weep, and rejoice with those that rejoice. Accompanied by the power of persuasion, the power of prayer, the power of the love of God, this work will not, cannot be without fruit” (White, Letters and Manuscripts, Volume 13).
Many Adventists are well-grounded in scriptural proof-texts. They could win most disputes dealing with biblical teachings about how we should live in accordance with the law. We are not nearly as facile, though, in discussing why we should put our trust in God, or in describing His loving character. And often, our debating spirit is anything but appealing.
Ellen White directly addressed this approach to witnessing, “The combative armor, the debating spirit, must be laid off. If we would be Christ-like, we must reach men where they are.” She then commented that some of our pastors “are as sharp as a razor, [and] cut off the ears of the people, and make them mad, and that is the end of the business so far as converting them to the truth is concerned.” You cannot simultaneously antagonize and persuade.
When our church leaders argued in 1888 that it was not the special work of the Adventist church to preach Christ, since other Christian denominations were doing that, but to preach the law of God and the third angel’s message of Revelation 14, Ellen G. White responded that “as a people, we have preached the law until we are as dry as the hills of Gilboa,” and asserted that the third angel’s message is the message of righteousness by faith in Christ alone.7 We were counselled to find “Christ in the law” and Christ in the third angel’s message.
We are still working on that.
Instead of a fearful emphasis on the law, and displays of the terrors of the last days, we should begin our outreach with a revelation of the love and mercy of God, followed with evidence on which to build faith and trust in Him. When we finally present the law, it should be clear that to love as Christ loved is the fulfillment of its requirements (Romans 13:8,10). The return of Christ then becomes “good news” instead of a “fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation” (Hebrews 10:27, KJV).
God wants friends He can trust eternally with infinite freedom. He can heal and will save all who trust Him. He is not primarily concerned with forgiveness, for, according to White, “to all, forgiveness is freely offered.” Instead, He is concerned with character. Ellen White writes, “It is the will of God that each professing Christian shall perfect a character after the divine similitude. By studying the character of Christ revealed in the Bible, by practicing His virtues, the believer will be changed into the same likeness of goodness and mercy.”
The greatest change needed in our church today is for more of us to spend time each day, as White puts it, “studying the character of Christ revealed in the Bible.” Surveys show that currently only a minority of our members do so. This is how we come in contact with the love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. This is where our characters are changed into the likeness of Christ, for “it is a law both of the intellectual and the spiritual nature, that by beholding, we become changed. The mind gradually adapts itself to the subjects upon which it is allowed to dwell. It becomes assimilated to that which it is accustomed to love and reverence” (White).
When the world sees us uplifting Christ, they will be drawn to Him (John 12:32) and will either accept or reject Him. As the goodness of God’s character is revealed, those who accept Him will be led to repentance (Romans 2:4). Those who learn to know and trust Him will glorify Christ, who declared that His work on earth was finished when He had glorified the character of God before mankind (John 17:4).
That is how our work will end as well.
–Dr. Mark Johnson is chair of the vision board of Boulder Adventist Church. Email him at: [email protected]