When I was around 13 years old, I decided to sit down and read through the book of Romans. Somewhere along the way, I picked up on the fact that the book was somewhat important. I recall cringing all the way through chapters 3, 4, and 5, but breathing a sigh of relief when I finally arrived at chapter 6. Adventists were right, after all; we can’t just continue in sin that grace might abound.
In the years that followed, teenage-hood kicked in; I began to get into trouble, and started picking up all kinds of seemingly unbreakable bad habits. By the age of 18, I had become fairly convinced that I was never going to be able to successfully change my life, and would most likely end up in hell in the end.
When, later on, I finally began to understand the gospel, I no longer looked down on those first few chapters of Romans. Instead, they became some of the most precious passages in the whole Bible. They provided the context wherein chapter 6 made sense, and victory over sin became doable.
As pointed out in previous lessons, there is a world of difference between behavior modification and true victory over sin. Given the proper incentives, a person can make tremendous changes in their life. Desire for reward, fear of punishment, and social acceptance (etc.) can drive a person to quit many bad habits, pick up many good ones, change diet, dress, vocabulary, and much more—all without ever experiencing a true transformation of character.
Especially with regards to our evangelistic efforts, as well as when working with our youth, we should make every effort to ensure that people understand the correct theological basis for behavior reform. Otherwise, we are liable to produce Pharisees on the one hand, and discouraged church members on the other.
For transformation to occur from the inside out, we first need to understand our true condition as condemned sinners before God (Romans 1 & 2), and the fact that our salvation is a gift that we receive by faith (Romans 3-5). It is only when we have experienced the peace of God that comes through justification, once we have rested in God’s forgiveness and acceptance, once we have begun to see ourselves as sons and daughters of God, that sin loses its power over us.
Sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace. (Romans 6:14)
The reason sin has dominion over us when we are under the law is because, even if we do change our behavior, our heart still loves sin, and eventually brings us back to it. Grace, however, changes the way we relate to God and, in the process, severs the ties between us and the things we once loved.
There are times, however, when even true Christians get stuck in a rut. They have experienced the gospel, and have gained victory in some areas; however, they continue to struggle in other areas for years. In this chapter, Paul introduces another analogy:
How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? (Romans 6:2)
According to Paul, the person who accepts Christ becomes dead to sin. This is a figure of complete surrender. Even though we are accepted into the family of God by faith, we receive the full power of God against sin when we surrender entirely. An illustration will help to bring this point home:
When Jesus was hanging on the cross, He was surrounded by several classes of people. The disciples were there; they had been by His side for the past three years, and had absorbed everything that had come out of his mouth. His family members were there; they had known Him from childhood. There were enemies and sympathizers in the crowd. There were Pharisees and Roman soldiers.
In this moment of Jesus’ complete humility, each of these groups saw someone different on the cross. The Pharisees saw an enemy that needed to be silenced. The Romans saw a convict that they had orders to execute. Christ’s enemies in the crowd saw an impostor who was receiving what He justly deserved. His sympathizers saw a poor man wrongly convicted because of the Pharisees’ jealousy. His family saw a loved one suffering, while the disciples saw the death of their hopes and dreams.
In all these hundreds of people staring at Christ upon the cross, no one could see beyond outward appearances; no one could see beyond the apparent defeat—no one, that is, except one person: the thief crucified next to Him. The thief looked at the exact same scene as everybody else; however, where everyone else saw defeat, he saw victory; where everyone else saw a loser, he saw a king.
So what exactly was different? Why was it not the disciples (who had been trained by Him) or His family (who had known Him for decades) who recognized His glory on that cross, instead of a criminal? I would propose it was precisely because the thief was crucified with Christ; he was, for all practical purposes, already dead, his physical body simply needed to catch up with that reality. This was the end of the road for him.
The time for goals and aspirations was over; there were no more plans or dreams—nothing left to hope for. While the disciples still mused over their previous expectations that Christ was the Messiah and that they would become His co-leaders, while Jesus’ relatives recalled the honor they expected to receive when He was crowned king, the thief was already done-for; none of those sentiments mattered anymore. His eyes could see the invisible because they were no longer blinded by the temporal.
This story well-illustrates the situation in which most of us find ourselves as Christians. We’re much more like the disciples than like the thief; because of this, we cannot fully benefit from the power of the gospel. While we have committed our lives to Christ overall, we still have goals and dreams that we hold on to—good ones, not bad ones. However, these plans tie us to this life; there are things we still want to accomplish, things still left to experience. We are not yet fully surrendered, like prisoners or slaves, whose lives now belong to someone else. This incomplete surrender equates to incomplete strength in the battle with sin.
While the previous chapters of Romans tell us how to enter a state of acceptance with God where growth can happen, chapter 6 tells us how this growth happens most efficiently.
The sixth chapter of Romans is also a good time to bring up another topic which is often debated in Adventist circles: sinless perfection. Whenever the issue is discussed, it is common to find people belonging to one of two groups:
- Group 1 argues that sin is our very nature, that Christ had Adam’s nature before the fall, and that perfection is not possible in this life.
- Group 2 argues that sin is not nature but voluntary action, that Christ had Adam’s nature after the fall, and that perfection is possible. I mentioned in the previous lesson that both of these groups are mostly wrong, because they don’t take into account the differences in how Adventists see human nature in contrast with other Christians. But for now, we need to first examine why this debate started in Adventism to begin with.
Around the 1930’s and 1940’s, it began to dawn on people that Christ really should have returned by then, according to Adventist theology. The idea that the investigative judgment began in 1844 appeared to imply that history was in its very last phase, and would last only slightly longer. No one really expected to still be here 7 or 8 decades after the Great Disappointment.
In response to this delay, a solution was proposed, claiming that Christ’s coming was contingent upon a significant number of God’s people (possibly 144,000) reaching sinless perfection. The explanation given was that, to win the great controversy, more was needed than merely Christ defeating Satan. Christ, after all, was the God-man and had an unfair advantage, Satan could argue. To fully defeat Satan’s accusations in the mind of unfallen beings, it was necessary to show that regular human beings could gain total victory over sin and Satan. Thus, because this had not yet happened, Christ had to delay his coming.
It is important to understand that this was the theological background that motivated the emphasis of several other theological positions. Firstly, to be able to take a position that necessitates sinless perfection, you have to define sin as something voluntary. Otherwise, how could we be responsible for delaying Christ’s coming if sin is beyond our control?
Additionally, if sin is only voluntary and not our nature as well, then Christ could have taken Adam’s nature after the fall. In fact, He must have taken this fallen nature if He was to be an adequate example for the last generation, since we ourselves must overcome sin in a fallen nature. Otherwise, we would be expected to do even more than what Christ had done.
When the evangelical cult experts mentioned in the previous lesson were told by church leaders that Adventists actually believe Christ took Adam’s nature from before the fall, it’s easy to see why this topic became a major point of contention.
Thus, in order to address the topic of sinless perfection, we must first address the underlying questions surrounding last generation theology. Has Christ’s coming been delayed? I would propose that, in fact, it has been—though for entirely different reasons we will explore at a different time. However, Satan’s defeat does not depend on a sinless group of human beings; he has already been defeated by Christ on the cross. The reason we are still here 2,000 years later is because more data was needed before God could bring an end to the sin experiment. Cutting history short would have placed the eternal security of the universe in jeopardy.
In the ages to come, there will not be a group of people who will receive the adoration of men and angels due to their part in the salvation of humanity alongside Christ. All glory will go to Christ alone, because He alone saved us and defeated Satan.
Most importantly, Adventist theology is canonical theology. In other words, it includes a commitment to build all theology on the Scripture alone. Last generation theology is not the theology of the Scripture alone.
With that said, we can now explore the other topics mentioned without the bias of last generation theology. God doesn’t need the last generation to reach perfection so He can win the great controversy. However, although perfection is not necessary, is it at least possible?
In the previous lesson, we discussed how, by rejecting Greek philosophical views preserved by Catholics and Protestants via tradition, Adventists came to a very different understanding of the nature of man. This change in the understanding of human nature also necessitates a change in our understanding of sin because, without the presence of an independent immaterial soul, we can’t have the same mechanisms for the transference of sin from Adam to us that they do.
We cannot consider human nature itself to be sin, as other Christians do; however, neither can sin be voluntary action only, as defined by last generation theology. Sin must be understood instead as character, and character can be changed—though only by God, since we don’t really know ourselves. Therefore, within the logic of Adventist theology, perfection of character is possible, but it is not necessary to be saved—ever. If it occurs at all, it occurs solely for the glory of God and for the salvation of souls.
Moreover, because we don’t fully know ourselves, we can’t ever know that perfection was attained, so there can be no boasting. In heaven, Jesus will point to some people as having attained to character perfection, and they themselves will be the most surprised. For us today, perfection is simply a source of motivation because, unlike Christians who believe they can never stop sinning and must therefore resign themselves to that condition, we have the hope and promise of victory over sin.
We have a higher calling, but are equally accepted and loved by God whether we attain that calling or not. But, how much cooler it would be if God could point to us in the presence of unfallen beings, and say that here is someone who fully reflects His Son’s character? How much more powerful would our witness be as we share Christ with others?
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 pg. 69)
Why? Because then the last warning message will go into all the world with great power.