Will Jesus Not Return Unless We Become Perfect?

In my last column I committed to re-examining events we postulate would trigger Jesus’ Second Coming. The first essay discussed our position on universal Sunday Laws and how that view plays out in our eschatology. This article considers the viewpoint of a vocal conservative minority in Adventism who assert, with fearsome certainly, that Jesus’ SC is dependent on attainment of “sinless perfection” by people within the Remnant Church in the “Last Generation.” Increasingly, this view is presented as “historic Adventism” and pitched to young Adventists in settings like Generation Youth for Christ assemblies.

We find this stance captured in EG White’s (EGW) 1900 book Christ’s Object Lessons (COL): “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 and claim them as His own.” (p. 69) This statement anchors another more developed EGW understanding of what Jesus expects of his followers as a condition for his return:

Those who are living upon the earth when the intercession of Christ shall cease in the sanctuary above are to stand in the sight of a holy God without a mediator. Their robes must be spotless, their characters must be purified from sin by the blood of sprinkling. Through the grace of God and their own diligent effort they must be conquerors in the battle with evil. While the investigative judgement is going forward in heaven, while the sins of penitent believers are being removed from the sanctuary, there is to be a special work of purification, of putting away of sin, among God’s people on earth. (Great Controversy p. 425)

It should be emphasized that these two EGW quotations, and not a clear biblical statement, form the foundation of this insistence that Jesus is waiting for “self-made” remnant Adventists, sometimes linked to the 144,000 of Revelation 7, to trigger the Parousia. Though Jesus is divine, they contend, during his first advent he relied exclusively on his humanity to overcome the human propensity to sin. And to prove to the on-looking unfallen worlds that sin could be overcome, and God’s law could be perfectly obeyed, without divine assistance.  Humans – on their own – should be able to replicate what the human nature of Jesus accomplished.

Like Jesus, these individuals will work out their own salvation, so to speak, by living sinlessly. This, advocates imply, explains why Jesus has been waiting since the Investigative Judgment began in 1844, for a saintly few to stop “committing sinful acts” and attain “sanctified maturity” just before the “close of probation.” Until then, Jesus’ second advent is on hold. This, in essence, when stripped of its coded obfuscations and doublespeak, is the premise of Last General Theology (LGT), as promoted by a small group of conservative Adventists who always manage to find powerful backers in the highest offices of the church.

Much of Christendom, including Adventism, has long ago come to terms with the confounding paradox of believing that Jesus’ nature is/was simultaneously fully/totally/completely God and fully/totally/completely human. We view this in much the same sense as we believe that the Christian God is Singular, even though the Godhead of Father, Son and the Holy Spirit are individually regarded as independent. To maintain intellectual integrity one has to accept this paradox, and many Christians have, chalking it up to the “mysteries of faith”.

In Adventist thought, the disputes about Christ’s nature have played out as a perennial tug for preeminence between Justification (Grace) and Sanctification (Works). Though the church has always recognized the importance of Justification in salvation, we have often seemed to prioritize Sanctification in real everyday living. Perhaps because of our doctrinal emphasis on obedience to the 10 Commandments.

For a while after the 1888 Minneapolis General Conference (GC) session there was hope in church theological circles that the debate over Grace and Works was over, and Grace had “won,” but Sanctification’s demise turned out to be premature. Still, 1888 was an important breakthrough, as the church gradually and semi-officially came to understand Justification as a first cause, defining it as Christ’s unmerited forgiveness of our sins, an atonement that puts us back in God’s favor. Sanctification, the transformed life, took its proper secondary place as a dependent outgrowth of being justified. The Christian’s daily attempt to emulate Jesus’ life of godliness was no longer causative of salvation but a result of being saved.  But in conservative circles, the church’s post-1888 shift in favor of Justification did not dim their view that the sanctified life, evidenced by obedience to the law, was what really mattered. Thus stalemate.

This tenuous truce seemed to hold until the late 1950s. Then church leaders, in hopes of discarding the cult tag that had dogged Adventism for almost a century, held “secret” discussions with key evangelical groups to make its case that the Seventh-day Adventist Church was mainstream. One result from this was the 1957 publication of Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine. (QOD) The book, Adventism’s grand overture to evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity, became instantly controversial.  Adventist conservatives saw it as compromise – watering down two important “historical” Adventist positions on Christology (Christ’s nature) and Atonement (reconciliation of God and humanity through Christ).

On Atonement, the controversy hinged on QOD’s endorsement of the evangelical/fundamentalist idea that salvation was completed/finished at the Cross. This was viewed as undercutting the position of Adventist conservatives that the Cross was only a partial fulfillment awaiting completion by a future perfect generation. Additionally, the position taken by QOD, that Christ had a sinless human nature at birth, suggested he had inherent capabilities humans lacked. This was viewed negatively in the Adventist right-wing community, who stressed Christ’s humanity.

From here on, some church theologians and pastors, notably ML Andreasen and Herbert Douglas, and later Dennis Priebe and Larry Kirkpatrick among others, would champion the nascent LGT course. Andreasen, the intellectual leader of the group, rode his QOD displeasure to founding a movement among conservatives. But probably the most influential, and some say sustainers of LGT, have been conservative leaders and higher church administrators. Chief among them are two GC presidents, Robert Pierson and Ted Wilson. Pierson was probably the most open and unabashed proponent of LGT, using his 10 years at the church’s helm to consistently appeal for a “special work of purification, of putting away of sin among God’s people,” so Jesus could come. Wilson, now in his 11th year as GC President, has been more adroit in his support of LGT teaching. He has used EGW’s writings as his special weapon of advocacy, quoting from COL page 69 and Great Controversy page 425 at every opportunity.

The foregoing is background to our LGT perfectionism controversy. Proponents have succeeded in using perplexing EGW statements to muddy the theological waters about the role of Grace and Works in salvation. Maybe our quarrel should be with EGW for creating the fertile environment for some to feel, like Icarus, that humans can soar up to the gods with their self-made wings. But while we wait to be perfect, there are multiple concerns about LGTism that proponents must clarify:

1. How do we know we have attained perfection? If the Second Coming is dependent on human perfectibility, shouldn’t we have empirical means of measuring when individuals or groups have mastered unaided perfection? If those who have become perfect are unaware that they are perfect, and those looking on cannot determine it, why stress what can’t be known? I understand the human impulse to be the attractive center of everything, but what do we bring to the salvation “table” that measures up? I recall EGW’s statement in Steps to Christ: “The closer you come to Jesus, the more faulty you will appear in your own eyes; for your vision will be clear, and your imperfections will be seen in broad and distinct contrast to His perfect nature.” (p. 64) This should give us pause.

2. When is the Last Generation and how do we know we’re in it? Since LGT dating is intimately tied to 1844 in Adventist eschatology, we infer that all who existed before 1844 are eliminated from consideration. They could not be identified with Revelation 14: 6-12, the key biblical passage which inspires Last Generation thinking. By this logic, only post-1844 Christians, and more specifically post-1863 Seventh-day Adventists (then a formalized church), qualify as Last Generation. Since the Lord has not come yet, it is safe to assume those interconnected events: Investigative Judgment, close of probation and the perfecting of the saints, are still in the future. Is it imprudent to ask when? Why should we preach human perfectibility if we can’t define or locate the generation that embodies it?

3. Who determines when Jesus returns? As I understand the LGT position, the timing of the Second Coming is no longer determined by God as the Bible infers in Mark 13:32, but influenced solely by human behavior. God, and to a similar extent Jesus, seem operationally out of the loop about the return. They are held captive to, and now have to wait on, a group of humans in the church to get their perfectionist act together and trigger the long-awaited event. There is a certain unseemliness to this notion, not unlike the hubris of men aspiring to be gods.

We study our history, I hope, not only to affirm its enduring strengths but also to learn where we might have erred or overstated our claims. When we find such occurrences we should muster the moral courage to face up and correct them. Truth should be objective and those who attempt to pursue it should not be vilified. Nor should they be cowered into guilt for daring to question. A community of fellow faith-travelers must strive to be indifferent to judgment, but it is disingenuous to cover up past mistakes by labeling those who call for re-examination, reform or truth-telling, as church “bashers.” Such attitudes would absolve us of complicity, temporarily, but it wouldn’t remove the haunting specter of self-deception.

The issue at hand is not whether humans should be perfect. At some point the meaning of perfection or character maturity gets pounded into semantic submission. The main issue with LGT’s perfectionism construct is that Jesus must defer to human action. In a perversion of godliness Jesus is rendered a helpless bystander, waiting on humans to achieve behavioral mastery so he could act. It is one thing for a group of Christians to be so convinced of their superior righteousness as to dispense with Christ’s mediation, but another thing entirely to sideline Christ on the question of his own return. The former takes chutzpah, the latter, contempt.  

 

Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home. Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/author/matthew-quartey.

Image Credit: Unsplash.com

 

We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10791
8 Likes

Thank you Matt for a concise description of and questions regarding LGT that has, speaking for myself, plagued me my entire adult life. When you examine this ideology it does raise serious questions that should be examined without the cry of heresy and actions to shame those who do.

As a young adult I was told to stop asking questions about this topic and just accept that the church leadership was right. I have since decided that when confronted with a level of thinking like this that one should definitely ask questions.

7 Likes

Thanks so much Matthew for your thoughts, they are so timely. Error abounds in this world and unfortunately it is often spread by those who profess Christ. What is perfection? It is impossible for us to escape the world we live in and with and we should live like we believe that God’s acceptance is guaranteed. Any belief system that does not result in total freedom from any fear of God has missed the key component of what the message of scripture is. Christ told us what makes us one with him, “they shall know you are mine if you love one another”, not when you are perfect. The people in the time of Christ also thought that perfection was keeping strictly to the cultural religious rules and regulations. Of course Christ did not keep those very well and had the audacity to point out the hypocrisy of those who claimed they did. I believe it is the same today. God will come back when the maximum number of people will recognize the blessings demonstrated by the life of Christ who without precondition loved the world and came here to demonstrate that love. Equality and freedom are the consequences of that universal love and perfection is knowing that nothing can come between the individual and that love.

12 Likes

For me that question was best answered in the movie, “A River Runs Through It”.

3 Likes

As it is your custom, You have done it again, Matthew. You identified the issue correctly. A Christianity that is primarily tied to the Ten Commandments overlooks Paul’s insistence that those who are “in Christ” are not “under the Law.” One of the most insidious temptations for Christians is to assign to themselves a Messianic role, thus robbing God of his freedom, and claiming divinity for themselves: a clear transgression of the first commandment.

17 Likes

The simplicity of the gospel is wonderful isn’t it?

Matthew 25:35-40 sums up for me how Christ sees his faithful followers, who are ready to go live with Him -

"For I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’

“Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’"

11 Likes

I will have to watch that. Thanks

An all-time favorite movie. Thanks for bringing it up.

1 Like

That was an excellent article. Many years ago we got burned by sending our son to a private school. It wasn’t until years later that I found out that these private schools were run after the LGT model.

Many of them are a drain on church resources. We can’t support both independent ministries and the church programs at the same time.

I watched it, thanks for the recommendation. It did end as you pointed out with perfection reflected in a life that was not what some would call good.

1 Like

"It is one thing for a group of Christians to be so convinced of their superior righteousness as to dispense with Christ’s mediation, but another thing entirely to sideline Christ on the question of his own return. The former takes chutzpah, the latter, contempt."

And yet…this is exactly where Adventism finds itself with a President that believes he is ushering in the Second Coming. He is no longer coy about his Last Generation Theology and exhibits both “chutzpah” and “contempt” as the result.

6 Likes

This essay is a great reminder of the danger of LGTarianism. The theme has been discussed here several times in the past few years, especially when a few LGTarians landed on this site and in a very subtle way tried to infiltrate this dangerous heresy that is nothing but the old culprit ,PERFECTIONISM, in disguised clothes. A fancy name that may end up mesmerizing the unwary!

Unfortunately, this time the heresy has reached the heights of the GC. Yes, TW is a LGTarian, by his own admission in his sermon on Saturday morning during the AC/2018. Another reason why it’s it imperative that he be replaced by a non-LGTarian asap.

9 Likes

The saddest thing about the ‘perfection’ or LGT theology is that it robs adherents of the confidence of their salvation in Christ.

I John 5:16-19 states, “We know how much God loves us, and we have put our our trust in him. God is love, and all who live in love live in God and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we are like Christ here in this world. Such love has no fear because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of judgment, and this shows that his love has not been perfected in us.” NLT

Which begs the burning question…If the LGT folks are right, how can we witness to the salvific power of the gospel, if we do not have confidence in our own salvation?

5 Likes

Yes, this is the saddest part. But, living a life believing LGT theology would be torturous, IMO.

3 Likes

I don’t think so. The very first Adventist I’ve met was in Southern Ohio on my college break. During a lengthy car ride we chatted about Christianity, and he revealed to me that he has not sinned since he was baptized. I told him that he just did :slight_smile:

But, I think there’s a necessary self-delusion that happens in all of us to reduce cognitive dissonance and mental distress associated with failure.

2 Likes

I agree…notwithstanding the plethora of ‘self-help’ books, there are not enough to successfully manage living with LGT theology!

4 Likes

I don’t know that it’s necessarily impossible. Here’s a story about a woman who hasn’t sinned for 27 years:

On the other hand, imagine waking up and the last thing you remember is 1991?

2 Likes

Yes, I suppose if you are delusional you can manage to live in this LGT world! :wink:

1 Like

When did you become an Adventist?

Of course, answer as you are comfortable doing so. I don’t want to get too personal, or prying into your life. :slightly_smiling_face:

1 Like

Sounds life Rip Van Winkle.

1 Like