Within the denominational fold today are many who through extended exposure to the idea have become concerned about what they call “legalism.” They condemn as unchristian our long-standing emphasis on operational faith, obedience and human cooperation with divinity. They seek to replace it with a virtually unconditional form of salvation.
Their view is emphasized in statements such as, “obedience is our response to the salvation that God gives.” Or, that “if victory and obedience were a condition of salvation, then salvation would be by works,” and “the condition of salvation is faith, not obedience.” The New Theology regards choosing to surrender to Jesus as one kind of (non)-obedience, even while that which comes after the initial moment of salvation arbitrarily is classed as another kind of obedience.
In contrast, here are just some sample statements from inspiration that go the other way:
The Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey Him (Acts 5:32).
And being made perfect, He became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey Him (Hebrews 5:9).
Under the new covenant, perfect obedience is the condition of life (God’s Amazing Grace, p. 138).
Could there be an excuse for disobedience, it would prove our heavenly Father unjust, in that He had given us conditions of salvation with which we could not comply (Sketches From the Life of Paul, p. 296).
God works; but man must cooperate with Him in the great plan of salvation. The condition of eternal life is not merely to believe, but to do the words of God (Home Missionary, October 1, 1897).
Self-denial is the condition of salvation (Bible Echo, December 9, 1895).
Implicit obedience is the condition of salvation (Signs of the Times, November 15, 1899).
You cannot enjoy His blessing without any action on your part (Manuscript Releases, vol. 6, p. 18).
Obedience brings salvation, disobedience, ruin (Manuscript Releases, vol. 7, p. 264).
The terms of salvation for every son and daughter of Adam are here outlined. It is plainly stated that the condition of gaining eternal life is obedience to the commandments of God (Review and Herald, October 26, 1897).
The great gift of salvation is freely offered to us, through Jesus Christ, on condition that we obey the law of God; and individually we are to accept the terms of life with the deepest humiliation and gratitude (Signs of the Times, December 15, 1887).
In the gift of His only begotten Son He has ensured to us eternal life upon condition of our faith and obedience (Signs of the Times, May 6, 1889).
Entire obedience to the law of God is the condition of salvation (Signs of the Times, April 14, 1898).
The atonement of Christ has been made to save all the sons and daughters of Adam from the penalty of the violated law, on condition that they repent of their transgressions, and are converted through the exercise of faith in Christ (Signs of the Times, August 4, 1898).
He does not save us by law, neither will He save us in disobedience to law (Faith and Works, pp. 95, 96).
In every congregation in the land there are souls unsatisfied, hungering and thirsting for salvation. By day and by night the burden of their hearts is, What shall I do to be saved? They listen eagerly to popular discourses, hoping to learn how they may be justified before God. But too often they hear only a pleasing speech, an eloquent declamation. There are sad and disappointed hearts in every religious gathering. The minister tells his hearers that they cannot keep the law of God. ’It is not binding upon man in our day,’ he says. ’You must believe in Christ; He will save you; only believe.’ Thus he teaches them to make feeling their criterion and gives them no intelligent faith. That minister may profess to be very sincere, but he is seeking to quiet the troubled conscience with a false hope (Faith and Works, p. 32).
When obedience is removed, no longer a condition of salvation, inevitably, to stop sinning is removed as a condition of salvation. This follows. By definition, to obey the righteous God is to stop sinning. To emphasize obedience is only to emphasize cessation from sin. Sin is the transgression of the law (1 John 3:4). When obedience is removed as a condition of salvation, salvation from sin becomes salvation from—what? Salvation from a broken relationship? Salvation from feelings of guilt? Salvation from what?
Another way to think of obedience is to realize that it is obedience to God’s law. God’s law represents His character. Hence, to emphasize obedience is to emphasize the copying of, or we might say, the reproduction of, Jesus’ character. And what is Christ waiting for?
Christ is waiting with longing desire for the manifestation of Himself in His church. When the character of Christ shall be perfectly reproduced in His people, then He will come to claim them as His own (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 69).
But when those who, knowingly or not, are promoters of the New Theology, press upon us a false distinction, they are damaging Scripture’s presented belief system. By creating this arbitrary distinction between initial obedience and the obedience that follows salvation, a potent inroad is made against the idea of obedience. Instead of “the character of Christ perfectly reproduced,” we are told to settle for the character of man retaining its imperfections till the close of probation and then plunged past the close to inevitable destruction. This is antagonistic to core Seventh-day Adventism.
God will accept only those who are determined to aim high. He places every human agent under obligation to do his best. Moral perfection is required of all. Never should we lower the standard of righteousness in order to accommodate inherited or cultivated tendencies to wrong-doing. We need to understand that imperfection of character is sin. All righteous attributes of character dwell in God as a perfect, harmonious whole, and every one who receives Christ as a personal Saviour is privileged to possess these attributes (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 330).
Do you desire to have all imperfections removed from your character, that you may be found without fault before the throne of God? If so, you have a work to do for yourself which no one else can do for you. You have an individual responsibility before God. You can walk in the light, and daily receive strength from God to overcome every imperfection, and finally be among the faithful, true, and holy in the kingdom of God (Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 312).
Let us aim high. We mustn’t lower the standard of righteousness. Imperfection of character is sin because it is chosen. If we choose to retain inherited and cultivated tendencies to wrong doing, we are refusing to take possession of the attributes Jesus is trying to give us. The key question here becomes, Am I daily willingly receiving strength from God to overcome every imperfection? Am I permitting Jesus to make me holy? This is not salvation by works; it is only letting obedience have it’s rightful place.
Am I willing to walk closely in Jesus’ company, or am I determined to milk the movement, choosing to masquerade as a Christian but retain my wrong-doing, my disobedience, my sinning? Am I using my connection to the remnant Church as a cover, a source of status or religious respectability, while permitting my desire to follow Christ to cool, and lagging in the work of character growth that I must cooperatively engage in? Is that work rusting?
Obedience is a condition of salvation because copying Jesus’ character is a broadly-based loving of Jesus and living of the law of God touching every space in my life. All my treasures come under its sway. Every hidden thing, every plant that our heavenly Father has not planted, everything that is out of harmony with His goodness, I wish to be removed from me!
Ellen G. White shows that obeying does not merely follow, but that in the moment we choose to obey, God gives obedience. There is no lag-time while God catches up to our decision. Indeed, we could not obey without His strengthening in the very same moment. Hence, “In the very act of duty, God speaks and gives His blessing” (Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 145).1 As we choose to act, God empowers the act. Thus He answers by empowering even as in submitting we request. This cooperation does not result in our own righteous works accomplished apart from Him. Far from it! It is actually Christ living in us and doing the works, as the Father dwelt in Christ and did the works.
Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of Myself: but the Father that dwelleth in Me, He doeth the works (John 14:10).
Subtle ideas can have far reaching influences. Let us inspect carefully everything that offers itself as truth!
NEXT: What is the New Theology Part 9: Justification and future sin: Are sins cancelled forever at justification, or is retaining justification conditional?
- As mentioned elsewhere in this book, this topic is expanded upon in Larry Kirkpatrick, Real Grace for Real People, pp. 86-129.