This week’s Adult Bible Study Guide quotes Ellen White: “The law of God, spoken in awful grandeur from Sinai, is the utterance of condemnation to the sinner. It is the province of the law to condemn, but there is in it no power to pardon or to redeem.” (SDA Bible Commentary, VI, 1094). God’s power “to pardon and to forget” is, as the influential Adventist theologian G. D. Keough liked to emphasize, perhaps the divine prerogative that is most important for human beings. It is exercised only through the generosity of God—through His graciousness—hence our typical short-hand reference to it as “God’s grace.”
But what follows from the exercise of God’s grace? This is a topic that, inevitably, is repeatedly considered by this quarter’s Sabbath School lessons. This week’s lesson addresses the significance of the law given on Sinai, partly because Adventists have traditionally been very concerned about whether there was still an obligation on Christians to keep the Law—and, if so, in what manner we are expected to “keep” it. It is important to recognize that this ongoing debate among Seventh-day Adventists is not a recent development—it is longstanding, and is historically conditioned. For that reason, this essay steps back from the text of Galatians, and instead makes some observations on the nature of Adventist debates about the Law, grace, and Righteousness by Faith. Knowing something about the different Adventist positions and perspectives can potentially be helpful as each reader of this quarter’s lessons tries to reach her or his own conclusions about what God expects of us.
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No church speaks with a completely united voice. As probably all readers of this website will know, Adventist theology has a number of areas where agreement is especially absent, and about which we argue adamantly. One of these “hot button” areas is soteriology: the study of the doctrine of salvation.
Yet the exact contours of the fault lines dividing us are hard to delimit partly because of a difficulty in definition. We use the same key soteriological terms but mean different things by them; because the biases and presuppositions we bring to them are frequently unstated. “Righteousness by faith,” at least as it is debated among Seventh-day Adventists, has become almost meaningless; arguably, so too have “perfectionism” and “legalism.” This is because almost all Adventists now accept righteousness by faith—yet we have different (sometimes radically different) perspectives on what that means. For many it connotes “justification by faith,” or even a belief that there is no obligation to keep the law at all; whereas for others again, the “righteousness by faith” message is precisely one of “character perfection,” i.e. of “keeping the law” perfectly. In other words, at least for some Seventh-day Adventists, it has directly opposite meanings.
A similar point can be made about “legalist” or “perfectionist” except, as it were, in reverse: almost all Adventists would reject these labels, if applied to them, but at the same time, the ways they are understood also differ significantly. Recently one of our leading biblical scholars, R. E. Gane, classified those who stress justification by faith as legalists! He carefully defines “legalism” as “misuse of the law”; this definition ignores the long history of opposition of law and grace in the Church and thus is surely too limited, since theology is historically shaped to a great extent. However, having defined his term thus, Gane then logically argues that it includes more than “futile attempts to earn salvation by one’s own performance . . . and to gain assurance by achieving a minimum standard,” or fastening upon “things that are really nonessential and forc[ing] them on others as essential.”
There is still another kind of widespread legalism that is not generally recognized as such. This approach claims to be gospel "righteousness by faith" because it emphasizes God’s free and gracious justification of sinners who believe in Christ and His once-for-all sacrifice as the only basis of their salvation. 
This sets up a later, subtle argument: “that an unbalanced, unbiblical approach to ‘righteousness by faith’ is based on a legalistic approach to God’s law.” Yet as Gane even-handedly observes elsewhere, the very people he labels as legalists “tend to brand as legalistic 'perfectionism' the . . . teaching of overcoming sin," that he supports in his article. So who are the legalists?!
We can add to this the point that “legalist” and “perfectionist” are pejorative terms; like “fundamentalist,” whatever their original technical meaning, they now connote nothing good. It is therefore hardly surprising that probably nobody admits to being a legalist or perfectionist, and that both sides of a debate seek to cast such terms in the teeth of their opponents. Righteousness by faith, on the other hand, is now almost universally accepted as right and good, and thus it is no surprise that it is widely, perhaps universally, claimed. Some of the most passionate writings on righteousness by faith and its importance are by authors, such as Herb Douglass, who believe that it eventually is possible for us to keep the law perfectly.
I suggest that perfectionist and perfectionism do have appropriate applications, but narrow ones, to positions that are at least nominally rejected by most Adventists today. However, historically there were—and there still remain today—some Adventists who argue that God requires us flawlessly to keep His law in our own strength; or that, even if we keep it only by Christ’s help, it is keeping the law that justifies us in God’s eyes (rather than sanctifies us after justification by faith). Such views surely are rightly called “legalist.”
Others have argued that, even if it is by God’s power, not our own, sanctification can make us truly perfect—whether physically or, more frequently, morally. The former postulates achieving perfection of our bodies; the latter attaining absolute perfection of our natures. Physical perfection, overcoming the corporeal consequences of the Fall, was one of the beliefs of the “holy flesh” movement just over a century ago, though I am unaware of any advocates today. Absolute moral perfection foresees “perfect holiness” (as the great, but flawed, Adventist leader of the 1880s and 1890s, A. T. Jones, put it) after the removal of our fallen natures (the argument of Australian Adventist Robert Brinsmead in the 1960s).
The result would be not just that we do not sin, but that we cease to have even the “evil tendencies,” or “inherent propensities” to sin, that have been innate to all humans since Adam and Eve sinned. This form of perfectionism envisages God’s people reaching a stage where they are beyond the possibility of temptation. It may also envisage reaching a point beyond which no development, in any sense, is possible for us.
These “legalist” and “perfectionist” positions, in the strict sense, are firmly rejected by many, perhaps most, of the writers, preachers and scholars frequently called “perfectionist” in Adventism today. Why they are labeled as “perfectionists” by many at the “progressive” end of the Adventist spectrum is because they argue for a more limited “moral perfection,” which generally is alternatively conceptualized (or described) as “total victory over sin” and “overcoming sin.”
Yet these exponents of a perfectible humanity conscientiously reject claims that we can perfect ourselves, or that there is “merit toward salvation in law keeping.” While they disagree on some fine points, I think it is fair to generalize that while they believe in “righteousness by faith,” they see it as a two-stage process, in which the justification that is attained only by faith in Christ’s sacrifice for us is fruitless if not matched by sanctification, which empowers us to keep the law and have “victory over sin.” But this, too, is a consequence of faith in God and in Christ’s redemptive sacrifice for us, and of the outpouring of God’s grace: it is the work in us of the Holy Spirit and the epitomized (observed and applied) rather than imputed righteousness of Christ.
Thus, most of today’s Adventist proponents of law-keeping and sin-overcoming by faith repudiate the possibilities of keeping the law in our own strength, as well as of physical, or absolute moral, perfection, as outlined above. Accordingly, to label such Seventh-day Adventists “perfectionists,” as many other Adventists freely do, is both terminologically inaccurate, and personally wounding to sincere Christians, who lift up Jesus in their preaching and writing and have a Christocentric personal piety. In the interests of full disclosure, I have to say that their views are not mine; but I can respect those who hold them, even while disagreeing with them (and even while maintaining that the area of disagreement is far from being an unimportant one!).
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As we continue to think, as Seventh-day Adventist Christians, to think about the law in the Old Testament and the New, and not least in the epistles, especially Galatians; and as we continue to discuss and debate soteriology; I propose that one of the most helpful things we can do, in building up that unity of the Church for which Our Lord and Savior prayed to the Father, as He faced the ordeal of crucifixion (see John chap. 17), is to conceptualize the different Adventist positions in different ways—and definitely to use different terminology in describing them.
I propose that, henceforth, we use the terms “perfectionist” or “legalist” only narrowly, for the positions defined above rather, than as a sweeping term. However, a term is necessary for those who believe in perfectibility of moral character, even if it is as the result of new birth, and thanks to faith in God’s gracious provision of sanctificatory power. Because one of their own favorite terms is “overcoming sin,” I use the term “overcomist” for those who believe that righteousness by faith includes both justification and sanctification by faith. And I invite other Seventh-day Adventists to join me in that terminology. It won’t end the discussions and debates. But it hopefully will mean that we conduct them in a more Christ-like manner. The Law given on Sinai doesn’t tell us to behave civilly to our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ—but Christ’s own reinterpretation of the Law surely does (Matt. 5:43-48). This is a Law I aspire to keep, even while I acknowledge my inability to do so.
Notes & References: 1. G. D. Keough, “God’s power to pardon and forget”, Ministry 39:6 (1965), pp. 36-37, 48. 2. Colin D. Standish, “Seventh-day Adventists Answer Question on Doctrine: The U-turn in Doctrine and Practice”, paper read at the “Questions on Doctrine 50th Anniversary Conference,” Andrews University, 24-27 Oct. 2007 (available to download at http://qod.andrews.edu/docs/14_colin_standish. pdf ), p. 2, and cf. p. 7 3. Roy E. Gane, “Legalism and ‘Righteousness by Faith’,” pt 1, Ministry 80/1 (Jan. 2008), 5-9. 4. Idem, “Legalism and ‘Righteousness by Faith’,” pt 2, Ministry 80:3 (2008), online at http://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2008/March/legalism-and-righteousness-by-faith.html, accessed 8 Mar. 2010. 5. Ibid., pt 1. 6. E.g., comment posted on the Spectrum website on 10 Mar. 2010: “To claim a true believer is not justified by the law is false and certainly not biblical.” 7.  See e.g. Bert Haloviak, “From Righteousness to Holy Flesh: Disunity and the Perversion of the 1888 Message”, research paper, GC Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research (Apr. 1983) (available to download at http://www.adventistarchives.org/doc_info.asp?DocID=35), pp. 11-13, 17, 27-28; George Knight, A search for identity: The development of Seventh-day Adventist beliefs (Hagerstown, Md.: RHPA, 2000), p. 126. 8. See, e.g., Paul E. McGraw, “Born in Zion? The Margins of Fundamentalism and the Definition of Seventh-day Adventism” [hereafter cited as McGraw, “Margins”], unpubl. PhD diss., The George Washington University (2004), p. 86; Arthur Leroy Moore, Theology in Crisis: Or Ellen G. White’s Concept of Righteousness by Faith as it Relates to Contemporary Seventh-day Adventist Issues (Corpus Christi, Tx.: Life Seminars, 1980), p. 10. 9. Herbert Edgar Douglass, A Fork in the Road. Questions on Doctrine: The Historic Adventist Divide of 1957 (Coldwater, Mich.: Remnant Publications, 2008), pp. 143-44 et passim; Gane, “Legalism and ‘Righteousness by Faith’,” pts 1 and 2; Dennis Priebe, “Bible Study: Righteousness by Faith”, Lessons 6-7, at Dennis Priebe Seminars (http://www.dennispriebe.com/new/node/34, and /new/node/35).
David Trim is Director of the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. This commentary was originally published to Spectrum on October 31, 2011.
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