The Move Away From Legalism

by Robin Brace

Just what is an Adventist-type cult or sect? It is one of those groups which developed mainly (but not entirely) in the United States of the 19th century, and which sought to change the previously accepted Christian message. We will give some examples a little later. It can be very difficult for one saturated with this particular mindset to make a change to more orthodox Christianity. To people from these groups, the Adventist worldview is far more exciting and exhilarating than what is preached in more mainstream Christian churches. In fact -- and lamentably -- this is often correct because of the woeful influence of liberal theology upon too many of these churches. But Christianity can recover its often lost dynamic by returning to the bone-fide gospel -- as taught in the New Testament -- we speak of good, established, conservative evangelical theology!

But how does one make the transition from a legalistic sect to normative Christianity?

First of all, it is necessary to deal with the concept of legalism itself. The legalistic Adventist sects, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, Christadelphians and the old-style Worldwide Church of God may vary in actual doctrine, but only in peripheral areas; they have massive areas in common. This is because they all derived from an approach established in the 19th century United States by William Miller. Of course, Miller himself drew upon earlier approaches including Jewish apocalypticism, and the work of men such as Joachim of Ffiore and Thomas Muntzer. It would have been much harder for this new approach to have taken off in the Old World, because these influences were so discredited there. European theology had been much dominated
by people like Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, and later on, Luther and Calvin.

These men were indeed theological heavyweights and, generally speaking, they had been extremely solid in their biblical exegesis and interpretation. Such men sought -- often accompanied by many hours of prayer -- to carefully uncover the meanings of the Biblical texts, whilst being very careful to avoid the practice of eisegesis (that is, reading things into the texts!). Of course, there exist some differences between such theologians but, mainly, only in comparatively peripheral areas; if one looks to the broad areas of their agreement there one will discover what may be termed, established and authentic Christian theology.

One cannot stress enough the desire of the early Americans to be free of religious control (having often suffered in the Old World because of its excesses). This led to a powerful sense of independence, with a resultant desire to re-discover Christian community and experience. Of course, much good came from this, but this also led to an atmosphere in which more idiosyncratic beliefs were tolerated, in a way in which they would never have been in the Old World.

When William Miller set out to re-focus Christianity away from the previously accepted focus on Christ's atoning work upon the cross to a new focus on the soon to be expected Second Coming, with the accompanying stress on Bible prophecy. He was drawing on strands which were in no way new of themselves, but had not previously been able to prosper because of the accessibility of a more Biblically grounded theology, and the respect and influence which it had enjoyed. The New World, however, was determined to be "open" religiously and this certainly came to assist the new, exciting Adventist worldview, providing an atmosphere in which it could flourish.

All the Adventist-type cults and sects -- as an American phenomenon -- can be traced back to the groundwork of Miller surprisingly easily. Anthony Hoekema is one of several writers who have done so. It really matters not whether we speak of Ellen G. White, Hiram Edson, Joseph Bates, or Charles Taze Russell (who founded the Watchtower Society -- later to be called "Jehovah's Witnesses" in 1896.) The founder of the (so-called) Worldwide Church of God, Herbert W. Armstrong, was also very much of this theological lineage in all of his influences.

Miller's approach proved to be so popular that by 1844, F.S. Mead calculates, "... there were between 50,000 and 100,000 Adventists in North America" (A Handbook of Denominations in the United States, F.S. Mead, p. 20). While one may question the higher of these two figures, there is little doubt that the Adventist movement -- in its varying hues -- proved to be very popular.

Miller, of course, has become quite famous for his date-setting for the time of Christ's return to this earth. When his first date (1844) failed, he appeared to lose some heart, but his followers were undeterred and continued on their adventuristic path unabashed.
The calculations were based on juggling texts found in the apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelation, for the most part. It is sometimes forgotten what a drastic affect these failed dates had on Miller's supporters. Several walked away from believing in the Scriptures at all, others became committed to mental asylums, and at least one is on record for taking his own life!

Adventism, however, never gave up Miller's approach of re-focusing their followers away from Christ's atonement upon the cross, to this new focus on prophecy, legalistic requirements, and to all the pet theories of the founders of the particular groups.

Yet it is known that William Miller had very little deep knowledge of the Bible; neither had he been a long-term practising Christian. He had never studied any of the original Bible languages, neither is he on record as having checked his evolving religious schema with any reputable commentaries -- indeed it is known that he was only assisted by Cruden's Concordance in all of his work.

All the founding Adventists followed a me-only approach in which they believed that God was revealing new truth -- only to them!

In short, their approach has been notable for this sublime sense of self-sufficiency. In this sense it has been easy for them, since all of these groups have taken an authoritarian approach in which the leaders are simply not challenged! This means that some of their leaders have never felt the need to defend their beliefs against more time-honoured theological perceptions. Again, most such groups have painted a picture (also very much part of the Adventistic approach) that they alone hold all religious truth, and that any who might challenge them are the tool of Satan!

Now we need to consider this matter of justification (in other words, how we are "justified", or, "made right with God"). It has been considered absolutely pivotal to Protestant Christianity that one should understand that justification is by faith alone. This is for the very simple reason that this is exactly what the New Testament teaches! If one should doubt that, a thorough study of the heavily doctrinal books of Romans, Galatians, Ephesians and Hebrews should quickly dispel all doubts! We can never earn salvation -- or even God's favour -- by any amount of "good works" on our part and we are wholly reliant on God's Grace.

This was well understood by such early theologians as Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, but, lamentably, the medieval church gradually departed from this position, descending into the "works/righteousness" approach of ritualistic sacramentalism. This lost dynamic was fully recovered, however, at the time of the Protestant Reformation. Now grace was restored to the position which it occupies in the writings of Paul.

But unfortunately, no Adventist-type sect/cult can wholly go along with this Pauline position. Why? Because if one is finally justified, or, "made right with God" by means of the gospel (as traditionally presented), then why the need for Adventism with its myriad of additional teachings? The teaching within these various groups is usually that while Christ indeed died for sinners, it is not enough just to believe that, one also has to ... (and here the legalism is introduced!). So we arrive back at the place of believing that we somehow have to work in order to earn God's merit (something which the New Testament rejects). The true New Testament position is that upon true repentance and conviction of the Holy Spirit, works will indeed flow from us but they will not be ours but, rather, Christ's works! They will be evidence of our calling and election. In this truer New Testament understanding, we never earn anything!

Before I consider what the Bible has to say about this important matter of justification, let me point out a very quick way of seeing through Adventism's flaws!

  1. The apostle Paul wrote Galatians primarily to counteract the influence of Judaizers who were teaching that accepting Christ's sacrifice of itself was insufficient to save. They believed that there also existed a requirement to hold on to facets of Old Covenant law and practice. In hotly rejecting their claims, Paul produces some of his strongest language, even saying,

    "As we said before, so now I say again, if any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you have received, let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:9).

    Again, no serious student of the Bible doubts what Paul is referring to here because it is plain, even in the English (more so in the Greek) -- the problems were being caused by Judaizing teachers who did indeed accept Christ, but felt that that sacrifice was ultimately insufficient to save without the practicing of Old Covenant law (Paul uses "circumcision" as a term which goes beyond the ritual itself to an attitude of feeling the need to keep the law). Cults and sects may allow themselves the luxury of just quoting odd verses in the Bible to back up their points and agendas, but all serious Bible students would insist on looking at books like Galatians and understanding them within their own context, whilst being careful not to impose their own views!

  2. While the background to Galatians is residual legalism from a Jewish stance, the background to Paul's epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians is somewhat different. Now the problem appears to be early-Gnosticism, or proto-Gnosticism. This was a very early Church heresy. Among the beliefs which these people pushed were that Jesus had not truly been flesh and blood, or He had been only part of the time, they also believed that they themselves had access to a "higher knowledge" which the average believer lacked and that this "higher knowledge" was necessary for salvation. Moreover, they taught that God could only be approached through intermediary angels -- and these angels, too, had to be worshipped!

    If space permitted, one could find links to modern cults here too, but we need to press on. Paul clearly refers to these people here:

    "Let no one disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, taking his stand on visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind" (Colossians 2:18).

    So we observe that Paul stands every ready to confront and defeat all ideas which taught that Christ is somehow insufficient to save! Justification -- and its means -- was challenged by all of these factions which strayed from sound doctrine. Paul is always adamant that Christ and the gospel -- as delivered -- were sufficient!
    So let us now clear up this matter of Justification - with an open Bible!

    Can Christians ever be really clear about this doctrine? The answer is, YES! It is necessarily made abundantly clear because its correct understanding is fundamental to perceiving the truth of the gospel. We may note in passing that the New Testament itself defines the substance of the gospel on several occasions -- this is important to note because some of these groups pervert the meaning of the word "gospel" whilst others avoid it. But the following verses define what is involved in that word "gospel":

    Acts 16:30-31, Romans 4:24-25, Romans 10:9-10, 1 Corinthians 2:1-2, 1 Corinthians 15:1-4. We may also look at Paul's defense before King Agrippa in Acts 26:1-23 (reaching its climax in verse 23). The message is: the Christ has now come and has been sacrificed upon the cross, taking the sins of the world upon Himself, and He rose from the dead three days later. REPENT OF YOUR SINS AND BELIEVE ON THE LORD JESUS CHRIST!

The Old Covenant, of course, had pointed to law as the best path (for that time) toward justification. The complete system of law, delivered from Mount Sinai, is the heart of the Old, Mosaic, Covenant (incidentally, it is one complete legal system; the Old Testament does not allow us to break it down into bits such as "the ceremonial law", and so on). But as time wore on we see that none, yes, not even Moses and Aaron -- and certainly not people like David -- were able to fully keep this law, and we start to find indicators that a better system of righteousness was yet to come. See the beautiful prophecy of Jeremiah 31:31, for instance.

The New Covenant soon makes it clear that law-keeping could never save anyone! That just goes beyond its purpose; it was simply as a "child trainer" to lead us to Christ. The law showed us clearly and unmistakably how sinful we are and how much we all fall short! More than that it could never do. Rather, now the law has shown us how sinful we are, we see the need of a Savior to rescue us from an impossible position. The "rescuer" or Savior is Jesus Christ! Being fully man and fully God, He lived a life of infinitely greater value than every other human life, or even all such lives put together! The sacrifice of this life could pay for the sins of all who would personally apply that sacrifice -- in full faith -- to themselves. Moreover, this would be achieved without "finding a loophole in the law" -- God is a righteous, consistent God who will not compromise with His character. In this way, God's law still stands; it remains true that "the wages of sin is death" -- as it says in Romans. The world, in general, still stands condemned under God's law. Not one "jot or tittle"' passes from the law in that sense, though as the New Testament makes clear, Christians today keep the Law of Christ, not Old Covenant law. Either this is so, or both Jesus in His "Sermon on the Mount" and Paul in his numerous "justification" statements were wrong!

The Adventist-type groups have not really understood what happened upon the cross. One could say that this is not entirely surprising since they give so little attention to it! An exchange occurred. Christ took upon His shoulders the sins of all those who would come to Him, appropriating Him in faith (which is why the Father had to momentarily turn His back, for the Father cannot live with sin). As already stated, He had to be fully Man and fully God for this to be efficacious, ruling out the Arianism of Jehovah's Witnesses, in which Christ is not God, just the highest creation of God. The second part of this exchange was that the very righteousness of God was imputed to repentant sinners who accept Christ. So, Christ took upon Himself the sins of all those who would come to Him, and these people took upon themselves the righteousness of God -- in both cases the exchange was forensic, or judicial (as in a court of law), a matter of attributing guilt and responsibility! Christ did not internally infuse sin in His last moments upon the cross, neither is it possible for us to infuse the very holiness of God! But it is imputed to us. We thus become justified -- according to your Bible and mine, it could not have happened any other way! It is all a matter of the grace of God. Repentant man is then granted the gift of the Holy Spirit and the sanctification process commences (we become more and more like Christ). This is a long road of course and we must avoid the flawed teaching of perfectionism (very popular among the cults). We do not attain perfection in this life and gifts and fruits which we produce will vary from Christian to Christian. We always remain wholly reliant upon God and covered by His grace.

Herbert W. Armstrong, who founded the World Wide Church of God group in 1933, was a typical "perfectionist" in his teaching with his continual stress on his follower's need to develop a "holy, righteous character" -- yet the doctrine of grace was almost totally ignored by Armstrong (the writer of this article is qualified to judge, being a one-time member of Armstrong's so-called 'Worldwide Church of God).

Christians are now granted a freedom in Christ which was not available to those under the law; we are now to be a people of the Spirit -- not the letter.

It will thus be appreciated that a correct understanding of justification is intrinsic to the gospel. How God has arranged to justify -- or redeem -- His people is what the gospel is all about!

If one should carefully follow through the progressive revelation of the Bible, it will be noted that everything which happened in the Old Testament only pre-figured, or looked forward to, Christ. Animal sacrifices could never really take away sin, but certainly taught the Israelites the burden of sin, and the need for a supreme sacrifice in order to fully "wipe the slate clean." As the Lamb of God, Christ fulfilled that. Even if one should strain to the sinews in trying to keep the Mount Sinai legal package, one would be bound to fall short -- Paul is quite clear about this as an ex-Pharisee! This is because Adam's sins have, in any case, been imputed to all of us -- without Christ we are dead in our sins!

It does not matter one iota that many today would say that this is not very "politically correct" theology -- it is the spiritual state of this world nevertheless! Only the efficacy of the sacrifice of the second Adam can retrieve us from what would otherwise be an irrecoverable situation.

The moment that any cult/sect founder comes up with their own version of the "gospel" (normally requiring adherence to the import of their own writings and conceptions and often including influence from various Biblical conspiracy theories, maybe including pyramidology -- all usually lumped together with a flawed approach to prophecy and a genuinely inadequate understanding of the Scriptures) the plot is lost! Why? Because Paul clearly demonstrates that the gospel does not need "supporting" with anything! The moment that one adds to it, it ceases to be the gospel! God always intended the gospel to be quite a simple message for a very obvious reason (see 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:13. When extra "baggage" is hauled on board, it is no longer the gospel! It is a tragedy not only that these people have never understood this but -- still worse -- that they have influenced so many by their errors. Let me re-iterate. Paul has demonstrated that the gospel does not need the "support" of extra philosophies (Ephesians & Colossians) nor with any partial adherence to the Old Covenant (Romans & Galatians). Believers in Christ were not to attempt to put "new wine into old wineskins" (Luke 5:36-39).

As far as this legalistic -- or Judaizing -- tendency goes, we can clearly see from the Bible that the Old Covenant is now a thing of the past -- it is obsolete (Hebrews 8:13)! Paul likens it to Hagar, while he likens the New Covenant to Sarah. And what is his suggestion? Lets read it:

"...Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman...we are not the children of the bondwoman, but of the free. STAND FAST THEREFORE IN THE LIBERTY WHEREWITH CHRIST HAS MADE US FREE, AND BE NOT ENTANGLED AGAIN WITH A YOKE OF BONDAGE" (Galatians 4:30- 5:1, my emphasis)

There is now no condemnation for those genuinely in Christ Jesus (Romans 8: 1-2), for the penalty of our sins has been paid in full and we are now no longer under the law but under grace.

As Paul is at pains to explain in Romans, a new way (in a sense) of achieving the righteousness of God, free of legalism, is revealed in Christ, giving the Jew -- with their knowledge of the law -- no advantage. It is received through faith (but faith never becomes another "work." It is freely given by God to His people (see Romans 10: 4-13)!

Robin A. Brace, 1998, updated 2001. Reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.

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