Over the past few months, I have written a number of articles about Last Generation Theology (LGT), clarifying some of their main views and responding with the Bible and Ellen White. In this concluding article, I offer a final evaluation of their ideology, listing the reasons why Seventh-day Adventist Christians should not adhere to it. As a fallible human being, I reserve the right to be wrong about my evaluation. However, this article reflects my best understanding of salvation to date.
Before this, a brief summary of LGT claims would be helpful. The core teaching is that the atonement includes three phases: the death of Jesus on the cross, the intercessory ministry of Jesus, and the vindication of God’s character through a final group of believers (the 144,000), who will reach sinlessness (character perfection) before Jesus’ return, proving that, with God’s enabling grace, humans can obey the moral law perfectly. This outlook is backed by the following ideas:
- Justification includes sanctification, which means that humans are not only rendered just before God through Christ’s merits, but their sanctification/character perfection is an essential aspect of their salvation.
- Jesus’ human nature included sinful inclinations, for if He is to be our example of complete obedience, He had to be exactly like us.
- Humans are born with sinful tendencies, but they do not possess a sinful nature (or at least this sinful nature is not punishable, for we are not directly responsible for it).
- In the experience of some in our church (including the author of this article), LGT ideology can be accompanied by the idea that after the close of probation, humans will have to live before God without an intercessor and without the Holy Spirit. In other words, their own characters must keep them before God. This also explains why sinlessness is necessary for this group of people.
- Sinlessness is possible before our glorification at Christ’s second coming.
If taken to their logical conclusions, some implications of the LGT ideology are:
- Jesus’s sacrifice is necessary, but not sufficient for vindicating God’s character before the universe.
- For Satan’s charges to be fully proven wrong, sinful humans must reach sinlessness, demonstrating that God’s expectations of complete obedience to the moral law is just and fair.
- Humans have a crucial role to play in settling the great controversy between God and Satan and proving God just.
- If humans can achieve sinlessness on this earth and stand before God in their sinlessness, the acquittal of our sins through Christ becomes meaningless and unnecessary.
- The emphasis on obedience, coupled with understanding sin primarily as action, results in a focus on behavior and appearance as evidence of one’s spiritual state.
- The return of Jesus depends on this last generation of humans. Only when the 144,000 achieve sinlessness, will He come back.
Having summarized the LGT understanding of salvation, and having presented some of the logical implications of this ideology, I will conclude this series with my evaluation of why LGT should not be accepted by Seventh-day Adventists by providing several points of disagreement:
- The 144,000 in Revelation 7 is not a literal number indicating a distinct group of people during the end-times, but the multitude of the saved from all ages. A summary of Ranko Stefanovic’s exegetical study of the passage ( Who are the 144,000?) should be sufficient evidence.
- The Holy Spirit does not withdraw from the sealed, but only from the wicked, and while Jesus’s intercessory ministry closes at some point in earth history, divine help will carry the saints through until the end. (Will Believers Live Without God?)
- According to the Bible, sin is “involuntary corruption,” “voluntary carnality,” and “legal condemnation.” (Sin: Biblical Considerations). Ellen White also speaks about the human bent towards evil and states that no human will reach sinlessness before glorification. (See parts 10, 11, 12 on Ellen White’s perspective)
- Justification and sanctification are both rooted in Christ but are distinct aspects of salvation. Justification is God’s imputed righteousness to us, while sanctification is Christ’s imparted righteousness. We are not saved through our merits (sanctification) but through Christ’s alone (justification).
- Character perfection has been God’s ideal for human living at all stages of our world history, not a unique expectation from the last generation alive. Moreover, character perfection is an ever-receding horizon, and even after Christ’s return, we will continue to grow holistically. (See Ellen White on Perfection)
- Logically, the LGT scenario implies that the great controversy can only be fully settled if some humans are saved (specifically, 144,000, some from the generation alive at Christ’s return). However, just as Adam and Eve had the possibility to not sin, the context of freedom in God’s universe allows for the possibility that no human is saved (or none from the last generation). This scenario is simply not possible according to the LGT ideology, in which humans play a crucial role in God winning the great controversy. This means that there is a possibility that God may not be fully vindicated before the universe. What sort of life would all His created beings live in such an unstable cosmos? Certainly not the one painted in the Bible.
- Furthermore, according to the LGT scenario, while Christ saves humans, humans in turn “save” God by providing the rationale for answering Satan’s charges. Isn’t it a little presumptuous to think that God needs us in order to be acquitted before the universe? The biblical view of salvation indicates that acquittal is a one-way street, it is God’s condescending and humiliation that renders us just. The idea that we “render” God just through our perfect obedience simply does not have biblical support, nor does it fit in the narrative of salvation.
- If God expects different standards of sanctification from different generations, it appears to me that this would render God unjust. A double-standard is not the measure of justice. Instead, as the Bible and Ellen White show, God has always expected and desired our full allegiance demonstrated through complete reliance on Him as the source of our sanctification, and the manifest effects of such reliance in our lives.
- If, as LGT claims, justification includes sanctification, then humans are saved partially by works (a view held by the Catholic church). It is important to keep in mind here that, while LGT proponents believe that only the last generation will reach sinless perfection, the definition of justification as including sanctification applies to people at all times. Thus, salvation partially by works seems to be an inevitable conclusion of blurring the two concepts. An interesting question arises here: are human works performed in the power of Christ better than others? In other words, does the fact that we are sanctified through Crist’s enabling grace somehow make our works acceptable? I think not, for human works are still human, and are still tainted. Ellen White seems to concur. (See part 7 – Justification and part 11 White on Justification). Our character is presented as perfect before God through imputation, not through sanctification. Salvation is only by faith through Christ’s imputed sacrifice.
- The second coming of Christ, as His first coming, is classified by the Adventist church as apocalyptic prophecy, which, unlike classical prophecy (for example Jonah’s prophecy about Nineveh), is not conditional—that is, it is not determined by human beings. This does not mean that when God decided the day and hour of His coming (a secret kept from all humanity), He did not choose it based on His foreknowledge of human events and choices. But the overall Bible picture presents both the first and the second coming of Jesus as unconditional/apocalyptic.
- If sanctification can help us achieve sinlessness, justification is logically useless. Christ’s death, then, is minimized and potentially reduced to mere moral influence. However, the Adventist view, based on various clear Bible passages, is that Christ’s death is primarily substitutionary.
- During an LGT conference, Dennis Priebe suggested that if God had won the controversy at the cross, then it should be over. He stated: “[i]f God did accomplish everything He needed to accomplish at that moment, then He is responsible for the horrors and the atrocities that the last 2000 years has brought us, and I consider that an unacceptable solution.”[i] However, this is simply not a necessary implication. There is no necessary logical requirement that God should return as soon as the controversy is won. True, a reason must exist, and as has been noted in part 12 the reason for God’s allowing evil after Christ’s death and resurrection is the same reason for God allowing the endurance of Lucifer after his sin: the demonstration before the universe of God’s character and of Satan’s character. (see Ellen White on Perfection). Therefore, God is no more responsible for the evil committed after His death on the cross than He is responsible for the evil committed before His death. God is not responsible for any evil committed in His vast universe.
- Ellen White understood justification as Christ’s imputed righteousness and sanctification as Christ’s imparted righteousness. She emphasized both aspects in different contexts (based on the audience she was trying to reach) and indicated a close connection between the two. However, a tight connection should not be allowed to confuse the concepts. A few more thoughts are necessary here. Because White sometimes used the words “perfection,” “sanctification,” and “sinlessness” interchangeably (though not consistently), her views can be a little puzzling. What does seem to emerge from her writing, though, is a differentiation between character perfection and sinlessness. Our sinful nature will be transformed at Christ’s second coming, but we will continue to grow in character throughout eternity. If character growth is possible in a sinless world, then character perfection cannot be defined (only) in reference to sin. Our church would benefit from further study on these three concepts in Ellen White and Scripture.
I will add here an important note: the gift of prophecy does not imply infallibility in understanding and interpretation or a complete understanding of God’s plan of salvation. A prophet is a messenger of God about things He shows him/her in a special way, a visionary, but not automatically an infallible Bible interpreter with a full grasp of God and/or the plan of salvation. We recall that Daniel was a prophet but had limited understanding of the end times, and the same may be said about other prophets. Therefore, we cannot assume that White’s understanding is complete and without error; no human being possesses such understanding. I am not suggesting that her views are erroneous. I am simply saying that her office of prophet does not necessarily imply that she must possess complete understanding of salvation or any other Bible topic. She struggled like we do, and her views are highly valuable, but not infallible.
- While this point is not meant to evaluate the entirety of LGT expositions, the examples of exegesis I noticed during a LGT conference raised some questions. For example, I found the connection McNulty[ii] drew between the death of Christ (planting of the seed) and the end-time harvest as sharing the description of Revelation 14:1-16 rather arbitrary. The Bible is indeed tightly interconnected, but a passage must first be understood in its own terms, based on thorough exegesis of the text in the surrounding context before providing links with other passages of Scripture. I am not persuaded that this important interpretive aspect is faithfully practiced by some LGT proponents.
- Along the same lines, we must always be careful to interpret obscure and isolated passages through the clear ones. This is a vital element in a correct process of interpretation. Failure to do so can easily allow for a variety of disparate passages or texts (in Scripture and/or Ellen White) to be strung together in a way that distorts their intended meaning (best evident in their immediate context). This aspect of interpretation suffers most in the LGT construction of their view of salvation.
- God’s plan of redemption does have a broader purpose than the salvation of sinful humans—the vindication of God’s character before the entire universe. However, God’s actions vindicate God, not ours. God’s love and justice are both demonstrated in the ministry of Jesus Christ:
- through His substitutionary, sacrificial death, which legally acquits us before God,
- through His life of perfect obedience, a demonstration and example for all who accept His justification, and
- through the intercessory work and the investigative judgment, which demonstrates the justice of His decisions concerning individual human destinies.
There is no need to vindicate God through other means beyond what God Himself has done.
In the end, I will concur alongside LGT advocates that sanctification is an important aspect of a Christian’s journey. Our church does not speak, preach, and write enough about it. But according to the Bible, sanctification is the fruit of justification. Furthermore, love and gratitude for Christ should motivate us, not fear. Certainly, God could “win” more people over if He coerced us, but that is simply not who He is. Neither can we coerce people into being saved, even if some abuse God’s grace. That is a choice between them and God and God will be the judge in the end. How then does God’s love in providing a perfect sacrifice to atone for my sins make us change?
- A faithful Christin who primarily fears God and erroneously stresses obedience says: You’ve done this for me and now I need to be like You in order to be saved.
- A faithful Christian who primarily loves God and understands correctly the role of obedience says: You’ve done this for me and now I want to be like You because You have saved me.
By endowing His creatures with free will, God put Himself at risk of being rejected. He has already suffered rejection by both angels and humans. But He has not protected Himself from suffering by trampling over our freedom. As the very definition of love, God desires our loving allegiance, not a forced conversion. Thus, love is what should motivate us to be transformed into His likeness. The question I am personally left with after the laborious writing of this series is this: How can we better promote both salvation by faith and costly grace in light of a deeper understanding that God is love and His deepest desire is a love-based allegiance?
[ii] Presentation #1: Why Jesus Waits, Norman McNulty, M.D., https://thecompassmagazine.com/news/march-22-23-2019-gods-character-and-the-final-generation-conference