Dear Adventism, It's Time We Repented Of Our Dry & Cheesy Theology
Note: The following article is an edited sermon manuscript. You can hear the audio sermon here.
Jesus said, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)
This verse once spoke to me and also confused me. It spoke to me because I needed freedom. Freedom from my addictions. Freedom from the seemingly endless cycle of sin, feel bad, repent, feel fine, hit rewind and replay. And it confused me because, as far as I was concerned I knew the truth. But I still wasn’t free!
I had grown up an Adventist. I had been through Sabbath School, Pathfinders, and baptismal classes. I only listened to Christian music and went to church religiously every weekend. I would even go to the local Christian book store and get some extra stuff to read. Truth was something I had in abundance.
But I wasn’t free.
Turns out, I didn’t understand Jesus’ words in John 8:32 at all. Because when Jesus spoke about truth he was talking about something quite different from what I was thinking of. But before I tell you what that is, I want to back up a bit and introduce the rest of this blog with the following statement:
All of scripture is a revelation of God’s heart.
What does this have to do with John 8:32 and truth setting us free?
Let’s find out.
THE ESSENCE OF SCRIPTURE
The foundation and essence of the Biblical narrative is to unveil, step by step, a deeper and richer picture of who God is and what he is like. And this reality is expressed through all of scripture. Not just John or Galatians or the Psalms - all of scripture is an unfolding and uncovering of the mystery that is the love of God.
Another way to put it is like this: The entire Bible is gospel.
Not just Matthew, Romans or Colossians. All of scripture is good news. Its there in Genesis, in Leviticus, in Isaiah and Ezra. The gospel doesn’t begin in the New Testament, and its not confined to the epistles. To the contrary, the gospel begins in Genesis and unravels itself through poetry, history and prophecy all the way through to Revelation.
What this means is that the entire narrative of scripture, from beginning to end, is about the love of God. His love is the essence, the theme, and the fullness of what the Bible is. And every doctrine that exists, does not exist independently of this love, but rather as a magnifier of it.
Picture it like this. Imagine the shape of a heart on a table surrounded by diverse magnifying glasses. As you approach the table, each magnifying glass enables you to zoom in on the heart in different ways. The main point of the whole experience is that heart. It is the hero of the story. But the magnifying glasses are there, not to take the attention, but to help you get a deeper look at the heart.
This is how the Bible is meant to be experienced. It’s not the love of God here and the doctrines there. Instead, the love of God is the centre of the entire experience and the doctrines are there to magnify that love in ways unimaginable to the human heart. If you think you have God’s love figured out, place it under the magnifying glass of the doctrine of baptism and you will walk away a totally new person, or the Sabbath, the Judgement, the Sanctuary etc. Each of these doctrines take us deep into God’s love and transform us.
My biggest mistake when it came to this whole, “truth will set you free thing” is that I missed the essence of what truth was. Truth, in my mind, was a series of loosely connected doctrinal ideas. I understood the Sabbath and could defend it. I understood the judgement as well. And the sanctuary. But what I missed was how each of these doctrines came together to tell one perfectly tethered story that both discloses the heart of God and immerses the reader in it’s intensity.
In short, I had a bunch of magnifying glasses with nothing to look at. As a result, none of my doctrinal knowledge really led me anywhere. They were facts, but they were not truth in the fullest sense of the word. Although I understood them, they did not lead me to the place of freedom.
You ask, how so Marcos? Let’s look at Jesus’ words again. In John 8:32 he says, “you will know the truth and the truth will set you free”. But go down a few verses to verse 36. What does he say there? “Whom the son sets free will be free indeed.”
Jesus equates the truth that sets us free with himself. The truth that delivers us is not merely right theology or right doctrine. All that does it make you smarter. But if you want to be set free from your fears, insecurities and weaknesses then your doctrine has to lead you to Jesus. It has to lead you to God’s heart. Because true freedom only takes place in the presence of God.
Unfortunately, what happens is some people focus on the doctrines as though they are the main point of everything. This is what I did. It’s not that God’s love was ignored but rather, I treated it as a separate doctrine. God’s love and gospel are here and his law and church and end time events are over there. In this view, what I ended up with was a table full of magnifying glasses with nothing to look at. So I became obsessed with the magnifying glasses themselves and then wondered, “Why am I not experiencing freedom if I know the truth? Why isn’t Jesus’ promise working for me?”
In time, God showed me that the magnifying glasses are not designed to be looked at, they are designed to be looked through. And that’s how doctrine functions in the Bible. Doctrine is not something we look at, its something we look through. But when you remove the love of God, there is nothing to look at through the doctrines, so the doctrines, not God’s love, become ends to themselves that lead you nowhere. This results in dry theology.
On the flip side, there are those who say, “Forget doctrine! Its not important. The only thing that matters is the love of God!” Usually, they are reacting to Dry Theology which is understandable. I too went through this experience where, in my desire to taste the love of God I abandoned doctrine and treated it as the unwanted step-child of the Bible. But the downside is I ended up with a Cheesy Theology that was just as powerless to set me free.
In fact, lots of churches do this. And its sad. Its sad because while you feel a sense of self-righteousness in not being like those “dry people over there obsessed with doctrine,” you unavoidably nurture a shallow, irrelevant theology. In this model, doctrine is proudly ignored and we harp on about the love of God week after week. But the problem is we never dig into that love deep enough to discover what it has to say to the gut wrenching existential inquiries of humanity. This theology may be comfortable and marketable, but it is powerless before the atheist, the political ideologue and the sibylline like wanderer who wants to believe in God but can’t find a single Christian capable of answering his questions in any remotely compelling way.
The only way to avoid dry theology on one end, and cheesy theology on the other is to embrace the tension between doctrine and love. That tension doesn’t really exist, but I find it necessary to codify it and speak of it in these terms because most of us treat them as antithetical to one another. And yet, read properly, the Bible is a progressive unveiling of the heart of God that transforms the reader. And that unveiling takes place in the harmonious dance between the overarching theme of God’s love, and the intentional presence of doctrinal magnifying glasses that give us greater, more colourful and more relevant glimpses into the bottomless ocean of his grace.
And it’s when those two are in harmony - God’s love as the central theme and doctrine as its continual magnifier - that we discover the life changing and freedom spawning nature of the Bible. In this dance we can encounter and communicate a truly relevant theology.
Why Does this Matter?
Once I discovered this, I realised once and for all why I wasn’t experiencing the freedom Jesus spoke of. It’s because I wasn’t experiencing truth. Truth and Jesus are one and the same. The Bible offers eternal life only because it offers him (John 5:39). You can understand all the doctrine you want, but if doctrine is merely something you are looking at and not something you are looking through - a portal into the presence of God - then you will never experience freedom, plain and simple. But once doctrine claims its rightful place as a microscope into the depths of God’s heart and you spend each day exploring those depths, your heart will begin to change.
But why does any of this matter? There are three answers to that question. The first is that the battle between good and evil is fundamentally rooted in the the person-hood of God. Satan spreads lies about him while God reveals truth about himself. Thus, at the end of the day, this lie-versus-truth conflict is a conflict over who God is and what he is like. And the only way to get an accurate picture that breaks the spell of Satan’s anti-God propaganda is to discover the love of God through the Biblical narrative, complete with the doctrinal magnifying glasses it provides.
In short, read your Bible! But more. If Satan cannot keep you from the Bible he will warp the way you read it. The cheesy model is one way he warps our ability to grasp the beauty of God’s character. The dry model is the other (which Adventists, I’m so sorry, tend to be most fond of.) Therefore, read your Bible but do it with a simple twofold approach. The first, to discover the heart of God in everything you read. The second, to read everything!
Read your Bible but do it with a simple twofold approach. The first, to discover the heart of God in everything you read. The second, to read everything!
The second reason why it matters is because we become like what or whom we worship. If the God we worship is strict, stoic and controlling we will become that kind of people. So Satan doesn’t really care if you go to church and read your Bible, so long as he can keep you chained to his lies about God’s character. And as you worship this god - this false god of approval, this false god who sits in heaven looking desperately for an excuse to keep you out, this false god who demands perfection of you on the threat of eternal damnation - then you progressively become like that god. Your character begins to reflect the insecurity, judgmentalism, criticism and stoicism that the god you worship exemplifies. In this sense, Satan’s lies about God have a double effect. First, they damage Gods character. And second, they damage ours. As we behold this false deity, our characters are shaped into its false image.
For those who doubt this, let me ask. Were the medieval crusaders just a bunch of blood thirsty sociopaths? Or did they worship a god whom, to a large degree, influenced their behaviour? What about the church in the Southern States - the one filled with members in good and regular standing who read their Bibles every morning and sung hymns every evening while wielding a whip on the bare backs of the slaves they purchased at the local human trafficking market? What of the faithful Christians who surrounded the steaks where men where burned alive for holding a difference of opinion? Were they stupid? Cruel? Yes, undoubtedly. But more, their actions were approved and sanctioned by the imperial god they worshipped. By beholding they became changed.
The third reason why it matters is the most shocking yet. Some of us may be thinking right about now, “Pastor, I would never participate in something like that.” Who knows? Maybe you are right. Maybe you are too squeamish. But regardless of whether you would ever do anything like the above, consider this. Jesus predicts a time in the end in which neighbours and families will betray one another. Daniel and Revelation reveal a time in which the economic cushion that keeps society sane will be removed and the survival instinct—violent and cruel as it is—will take over.
How are we to prepare for this?
The answer is simple. “If you continue in My word, you are truly My disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free… if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:31-32, 36)
The book of Revelation reveals that there was a war in heaven (Revelation 12:7) followed by the displacement of Satan and his angels (Revelation 12:12, Luke 10:18). After the fall of man (Genesis 3), God formed a nation (Israel) to be his special people, set apart for him to reveal his beauty to the surrounding nations. But Satan’s war against God was not over. He “rose up against Israel” (1 Chronicles 21:1) and led it astray. By the time Jesus came, his own people didn’t recognise him. But from those who did, he gave birth to a new people, the church. And yet, the church too was corrupted. Shortly after the apostles died, the church became a religio-political Roman power. It manipulated, coerced and murdered dissenters. It suppressed the truth of God’s heart for over a thousand years until a protest erupted which gave birth to a new movement seeking to return to the narrative of scripture (the protestants). But it was only a matter of time before the protestants themselves began reflecting a false picture of God. They persecuted, coerced and killed emerging protestants for diversity of thought just as the medieval church had done. (ex: The Anabaptist’s whom early protestants and Catholics tortured and drowned for daring to suggest baptism was by full immersion and not by sprinkling).
And in case you are an Adventist and find yourself tempted with the thought, “not us!” Think again. Everywhere I go I meet wonderful Seventh-day Adventists who are stuck in the mire of legalism, unsure about their own salvation. The difficult God they worship, reflected in their own difficult characters. Our churches are dying - our monotonous worship merely a reflection of our mechanical God. Our youth are leaving. Our leaders are ageing. Our church is hardly known by anyone outside our walls. I have seen broken people driven out of our churches, gossip and slander our primary weapons of choice as we dig our trenches in never-ending battle between liberals and conservatives. In our history, we have promulgated lies about God just as much as the very religious institutions we were raised to protest. We are just as prone to being used by him as was Israel of old and the church of history. Satan’s war against truth is alive and active amongst us.
What this means is that our safety cannot rest in some label like, “Adventist”. Our only safety is in Jesus. The Bible must become to us a telescope into the character of God.
So there are three reasons why a true understanding of God’s character is so important. First, because it is the foundation of the war between good and evil. Second, because we become like the god we worship. And third, because the Bible predicts a crisis at the end of time in which your picture of God will be one of the primary determiners in how you treat others.
But there is a fourth.
In the book Christ Object Lessons, Ellen White tells us something else about the end of time. She writes:
Not only is the war between good and evil a war over God’s heart. Not only do we become like the god we worship. Not only does Revelation envision a final conflict in which professing Christians will act out the very cruelty they believe God himself demands of them, but in the midst of all this drama we are told that God, in his final act of mercy - a mercy tried and worn through thousands of years of sin, apostasy and rebellion, a mercy strained by injustice and exhausted by the murder of the innocents, a mercy strangled by human selfishness, the oppression of the weak and the exploitation of the fragile - that very mercy God will extend as he showers the earth with the truth about his character of love for the last time.
He will call out to wandering humanity, to the heart of a moribund race once more and ask, “What fault did your fathers find in me that they strayed so far from me?” “My people, what have I done to you? Testify against Me how I have wearied you!” (Jeremiah 2:5, Micah 6:3). “Oh taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 34:8)
God’s heart is the final message to the world.
He has called us to be a part of that revelation.
So dear Adventism. Its time we repented of our dry and cheesy theology and recognise that all of scripture is a revelation of God’s heart. In every prophecy and poem, in every letter and biography and in every record and parable. God’s heart is the central theme.
And somehow, as we find ourselves immersed in the beauty of who he is, not only will we find freedom from our fears, insecurities, addictions and wounds but the world will begin to see him in us.
The old British preacher Alan Redpath said it best.
 Woods, Mark. “Burned at the stake, racked and drowned: Why did everyone hate the Anabaptists?”, [Web: https://www.christiantoday.com/article/burned-at-the-stake-racked-and-drowned-why-did-everyone-hate-the-anabaptists/81608.htm]
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