In my last post I went over the four most common versions of salvation in the world and in the church. In the end I concluded all of them were pretty lame. However, I also proposed that the Bible teaches a fifth version, or better put the only version, and that is our topic today. So What is this only version? Look at it here in Ephesians:
For it’s by God’s grace that you have been saved. You receive it through faith. It was not our plan or our effort. It is God’s gift, pure and simple. You didn’t earn it, not one of us did, so don’t go around bragging that you must have done something amazing.
The salvation story that dominated most of my experience was the “but” version that I wrote about last week. In fact, that is the version that dominates many conservative Adventists. For some reason, many of us have embraced a Catholic/ Mormon view of salvation that teaches a “faith + works = heaven” theology, but nothing could be further from the truth. According to the Bible, salvation is a free gift that we receive apart from works. But what use would that gift be if once we had it we would have to “work” in order to keep it? A free gift that you have to earn the right to keep is not truly free. It is a product with a price tag that comes after you receive the product. Its like those deals you see on TV: “Take it Home for zero down!” But “Payments begin in 60 days.” No one considers the “zero down” deal a gift. It is still a product for sale because you are not able to keep it unless you begin to pay at the allotted time. And yet, this was the gospel to me. Not a gift, but a “zero down” option. “You don’t have to be perfect, just accept Christ and you are saved! It’s a free gift, apart from works! No one can earn salvation, just believe and its yours!” But once I accepted Christ, the message came, “Payments begin now.” Salvation was free, but only for the moment. I got it for zero down, but now I had to begin the payments. “Keep the Sabbath, change your diet, don’t do this or that or the other. Oh and by the way, here is a list of Ellen White quotes (out of context of course) on how everything you enjoy is evil and will keep you out of heaven. So stop doing it because you have to be perfect, without blemish or spot, or else you wont make it through the judgment.” Now, let me be clear. No one actually used those words, but this is the picture my mind began to paint as I listened to sermons, read books, and spoke with other Adventists in my faith community. In many ways, I was oblivious to what I actually believed. It wasn’t until I was confronted with the true gospel that I realized that I believed a false gospel. The light shone on the darkness, and how great was the darkness! I saw for the first time, the scales fell from my eyes, and there I was – stunned beyond belief. When truth came, the lie was exposed in its ugliness and this was it: Salvation is free, but only for acceptance. Once you have it, you have to start making some payments or else you will lose it. And just to be clear on how serious God is about his law, even if you make lots of payments, they won’t do you any good unless you attain a spotless character. If you fail to do that then you can’t be saved. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, this is why anytime someone spoke about the grace of God I felt compelled to say “yes, Gods grace is wonderful but that’s no excuse for sin! You still have to be obedient! That doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want!” And so on and so forth. Was there something wrong with my “but” statements? Theologically, no. But the real problem lay in the fact that grace frightened me and because it frightened me I couldn’t enjoy it for what it was. Somehow, I thought grace would open the floodgates of sin and so I couldn’t simply sit back and say “amazing grace, how sweet the sound” because the moment I did I felt it was too good to be true. There just had to be something for me to add. There just had to be something I had to do in order to enter heaven. A gift was too free, too good, or dare I say, too “gracious.” Nevertheless, the bible is clear. Salvation “is God’s gift.” It is not a “zero down” deal. It is not a, “take it home now pay later” offer. It is a gift. It is free to receive and free to retain. This is the only salvation story the Bible tells. You are saved as a free gift apart from works and are preserved in Christ as a free gift apart from works. This means that you don’t have to do anything in order to be saved or stay saved. You just have to receive the gift though faith and through the same faith that you receive it you also retain it. This is the foundation of Christianity. We are saved by grace through faith from beginning to middle to end. No if’s, no and’s, and certainly no but’s. It’s all a gift of God. And the crazy thing is that God gives this gift to evil people, not to good people. Grace is for the sinner not the saint. The more wicked you are the more you qualify! Look at verse five. It says,
[God] infused our lifeless souls with life—even though we were buried under mountains of sin—and saved us by His grace.
It is when we were dead in sin that Jesus offered us salvation. It is when we were lifeless, buried under mountains of pride, lust, and addictions, dead in our selfishness and depravity, that Jesus came to give us life. Works cannot save us and works cannot keep us. It has to be a gift of grace from beginning to end. This is the only way. You can’t be vegetarian enough, or know enough Bible verses, or behave well enough for God to accept you. The gift of salvation is not offered to you when you are good. It’s offered to you when you are evil. You did not receive the gift because you were good. You received it because God loved you despite your sin. And you do not keep the gift because you are good. You keep it because God loves you despite your imperfections. Salvation is a gift. It is given without merit. And the end result of this free gift is that no one can “go around bragging that [they] must have done something amazing.” So do you qualify for salvation? I suppose that depends on whether you are a sinner. If you are then you qualify. And all you have to do is say yes to the gift that God has brought to you. The moment you do, it is yours without any “but’s”. I want to invite you to say yes to God’s finished work. If you have never experienced the forgiveness he offers or if you have been trying to earn his grace or keep his grace, it’s time to let go. Salvation is a gift for those who are sinners. It is not “What Jesus did + What I do = Salvation.” It is “What Jesus did. Period.” So accept the gift and rejoice.
Each one of you may know for yourself that you have a living Saviour, that he is your helper and your God. You need not stand where you say, “I do not know whether I am saved.” Do you believe in Christ as your personal Saviour? If you do, then rejoice. – Ellen White (GCB April 10, 1901, par. 14).
Some time ago I wrote a blog titled "Do You Qualify For Salvation?" In the past few months I have taken that singular blog post and expanded it for a series atthehaystack.tvpresented by the same title. Because the expansion proved to be a real joy and blessing for me as I wrote it, and also for others who read it, I have decided to share it here. However, because I already have a blog titled "Do You Qualify for Salvation?" I will give each of these posts a different title. Below is the first one titled, "A Night with the Counterfeits". For some, this series may be nothing more than a repetition of what you have read on this blog for the last few years. For others it may be a breath of fresh air. Whatever your experience, I pray you are blessed.
A Night with the Counterfeits. There is a true story told of an Indian missionary. The young man was in India during a great festival in which all of the Hindus travel to the river Ganges to wash themselves for the forgiveness of sins. Thousands of Hindus traveled for miles to wash themselves in this river. The story goes that this missionary was crossing a bridge over the river when he saw a woman weeping uncontrollably. He approached her to see what was wrong. She told him that her husband was unable to work. They had no money to provide for the family. She told him that her sins were so many that no one knew about. She was burdened with guilt and shame. She needed forgiveness and blessings. In order to receive the blessing and forgiveness of the goddess Ganges, she said, “I have given her the most valuable offering I could give her. My six month old baby boy. I just threw him into the river.” The missionary proceeded to explain the gospel to her. To tell her that she didn’t have to kill her son. God had sent his son in order to save mankind. When he was done the woman looked at him. “Why didn’t you come a half hour sooner?” She asked. “I didn’t have to kill my son.” And with that she began weeping again. She’s not the only one you know. There are thousands. Millions are crying out “why?” Longing and searching for an answer to the void in their heart. Looking for forgiveness and salvation. Their religion tells them that salvation can only be gained by working hard to earn Gods favor. Their religion tells them that they have to climb, struggle, work, sweat, bleed, and suffer in order to enter the Kingdom. But the Bible says something else. In Ephesians 2:8-9 it says,
“For it’s by God’s grace that you have been saved. You receive it through faith. It was not our plan or our effort. It is God’s gift, pure and simple. You didn’t earn it, not one of us did, so don’t go around bragging that you must have done something amazing.”[i]
The Bible teaches that it’s not what we do that saves us, but what God has done. In other words, this whole salvation thing is never about what we do; it’s about what He did. But what exactly does that mean? Before I explain it, I want to back track a bit. The book of Ephesians, which I just quoted, reveals God’s mysterious purpose for what we call “church.” Now, what does church have to do with salvation? Well, lets find out. Paul, the author of the book, paints a picture of a secret weapon that God had planned from the beginning of time in order to defeat evil. That secret weapon is the church. Why church? I mean. Isn’t church boring? Irrelevant? Hasn’t the church caused more evil than good in history? How could this be God’s secret weapon to defeat evil? That answer is found in Ephesians 1:22-23. Here Paul says,
“God has placed all things beneath His [Jesus'] feet and anointed Him as the head over all things for His church. This church is His body, the fullness of the One who fills all in all.”
According to this verse, Christ is the head of the church which is his body. However, there is something powerful here. The Greek word for church is “ekklesia” which means congregation or assembly. According to the Bible “church” is not a building, it’s a community of people. So God’s secret weapon to defeat evil is a community of people. But what kind of people? Ephesians 2:1-2 answers that question. It says,
“As for you, don’t you remember how you used to just exist? Corpses, dead in life, buried by transgressions, wandering the course of this perverse world. You were the offspring of the prince of the power of air—oh, how he owned you, just as he still controls those living in disobedience.
Did you catch it? God’s secret anti-evil weapon from the beginning of time was a community of people. But not good people. Bad people! People who were rebellious, wicked, and selfish. People who were slaves to sin. God’s mystery of the church is that He was going to get these “evil people” and use them to defeat evil. However, in order for God to do this He would have to get these people to be on His side. But how? The answer is found in the story the Bible tells about salvation. Now of course, there are many different versions of this story floating around. Even though the Bible only tells one salvation story, this story has been retold in countless ways. However, we can boil down all of those countless versions into four. 1) The most common is that you are saved by works. This means you have to be good and if you are good enough you are allowed into heaven. This is the version that forms the foundation of paganism. I call it the “performance” version of salvation. 2) The second is that you are saved by grace, but in order to stay saved you have to work. In other words, Jesus covers your past sins but your future is uncertain. You are saved, but not really. There is still something you have to do in order to earn the right to stay saved and enter heaven at last. This is the foundation of religions such as Catholicism and Mormonism. I call this the “but” version of salvation (you will soon see why). 3) The third is that salvation is a ticket to heaven and nothing more. No change takes place in the life. But because you once believed you now have a ticket that guarantees you access into eternal bliss. This is the foundation for some (though certainly not all) evangelical churches and is often referred to as “once saved, always saved”.[ii] I call it the “ticket” version of salvation. Being raised Adventist, I was too smart to fall for the “performance” version (most Christians are). However, that didn’t make me immune to being duped by “but” and “ticket” versions. For many years I viewed the salvation story though those two lenses. The “ticket” was useless. While I didn’t have any anxiety over my eternal security, I had no victory over sin. Since I knew I was going to heaven, I had no rush to find victory. But I was depressed, always feeling defeated and filthy, and eventually my sin caught up with me and the consequences were extremely painful. If only Jesus had set me free from sin I wouldn’t have had to go through those dark nights of shame and guilt that nearly choked out my life. But Jesus wasn’t the problem. The problem was I had come to view Him, not as a savior, but as a ticket and tickets have no power. From there I fell into the “but” version of the salvation story. This is the version that teaches that Jesus forgives and saves but in order to stay saved you have to perform at a certain level or else you are out. This version was instrumental in showing me that victory over sin was possible, but as time went on I found this to be nothing more than a baptized version of the “performance” model. Even though I was saved by grace I always felt I hadn’t done enough to stay saved and that I had to do more. I had to be a vegetarian or else I would lose my salvation. I had to keep the Sabbath perfectly and be nice to people and do everything right or else I would lose the free gift of salvation. And I was miserable. I call this the “but” version of salvation. Why? Because anytime someone spoke about the grace of Christ, I always felt the need to add “but” at the end of their conversation. “We are saved by grace!” They would shout. “But!” I would shout back, “don’t forget you still have to do A, B and C!” For some reason I couldn’t just enjoy the grace of God for what it was. Instead, I always had to add the “but” at the end just to make sure everyone knew what the requirements were. During this time I knew some of rest that is to be found in Jesus, but there was always a voice in the back of my mind that prevented me from having full assurance. I experienced spiritual growth and victory over sins that had long controlled my life, but something was missing. However, I refused to admit there was a problem with my salvation story because in my mind, the only alternative was the “ticket” version and I sure wasn’t going back to that. 4) Eventually, the “but” version of salvation led me to the fourth version of the gospel. It is a subcategory of “but” known as the “light switch” version of the gospel. The light switch version nearly killed me. This version (which was nothing more than the logical result of the “but” version) teaches that a person is justified freely by Gods grace but must, from then on, continue to perform well enough to keep their salvation. That’s pretty much what the “but” version is, only in the “light switch” version every time you sin you lose your salvation until you confess and repent and then you are saved again. It’s as if God is in heaven flipping a “light switch.” Every time you sin, the light switch goes off (you have lost your salvation), and every time you confess and repent the light switch goes back on (you are saved again). When I believed in “light switch” I was always worried about whether I had sinned or not and often times found myself debating myself over whether or not I had just sinned, almost just sinned, or thought I just sinned but hadn’t really. The situation was worse when I felt that God wouldn’t forgive me for a sin I committed if it involved another person. I would suffer for weeks and months over a supposed sin that I needed to confess to someone else and at times found myself confessing things that were not only unnecessary but ridiculous. But I did it anyways because I wanted to make sure that God wouldn’t have any reason to not let me into heaven. I was daily and hourly tortured by my conscience and became so hypersensitive that I eventually found myself at a counselors office diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. God was my enemy desperately trying to keep me out of heaven. And I was responsible for changing his mind, but no matter how hard I tried one plaguing accusation remained: “Never good enough.” Negative as this experience may have been I do thank God for it because if it weren’t for my hopelessness and despair I would never have turned to him for answers. I would never have studied and researched and explored. I would never have asked those deep, gut wrenching questions that many people never think to ask. My defeat paved the way for my victory and though I have much to learn I eventually discovered that none of those previous versions were the true salvation story. When I did in fact discover the Biblical story of salvation my entire soul was enraptured with a joy and conviction I have never before experienced. I was free! The 4 versions were false, but there was a fifth. In fact, I wouldn’t even call it the fifth. Instead, I prefer to call it the only. The true. The genuine. All the others were counterfeits, but I had finally discovered the beauty of the gospel and the overwhelming joy it brings. But more on that next time. _____ [i] All Bible verses quoted from The Voice.
[ii] Contrary to what I believed growing up “once saved always saved” is not a universally accepted teaching in the evangelical world. Adventists are in the company of Lutherans, Methodists, Pentecostals, Free-Will Baptists (also Pentecostal) and others in denying this teaching. Most Protestants who embrace the theology of Martin Luther, Jacobus Arminius, or John Wesley are likely to also reject the concept of “once saved always saved”.
Why I No Longer Believe in Last Generation Theology by Sam Millen
Growing up in the Adventist church, I was exposed to a brand of Adventism promoting what has been identified as Last Generation Theology (LGT). We were taught that those in the church who disagreed with LGT were in apostasy. It was much later, while studying in the seminary, that I discovered LGT didn’t enter Adventism until the 1930s. It was introduced by Adventism's premier theologian during that period, M.L. Andreasen. The concept is not new, however. I have also learned that the Pharisees had their version of LGT. They firmly believed that if Israel kept one Sabbath perfectly, the Messiah would come immediately. That is why they wanted to get rid of Jesus when he broke their Sabbath rules.
LGT proponents like to cling to one particular quote by Ellen White. She writes, “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, p. 69). When I view this quote now, without an LGT bias, it becomes clearer that Ellen White is not necessarily talking about sinlessness, but setting aside our differences and being loving, just like the disciples in the upper room before the Holy Spirit was poured out. Jesus says the end will come when the gospel reaches everyone (Matthew 24:14). He also says that everyone will know we are his disciples when we love each other (John 13:35).
The focus of LGT is character perfection. From an LGT point of view, Jesus hasn’t returned because he is waiting for a generation that is sinless in order for God to prove that his law can be kept perfectly. LGT teaches that God is depending on us to vindicate his character. If we could demonstrate to the watching universe that God’s law can be obeyed, nobody would have an excuse. We would prove Satan wrong! God would be reasonable in his expectations. I now see this as blasphemy. Jesus fully vindicated God’s character on the cross. God is love. We cannot take Jesus' place and fulfil that role.
Instead of partying with my peers, I spent most of my teenage years trying to be perfect. I tried to have only pure thoughts, and to conquer my temper and other character flaws. After all, God was relying on me to overcome sin! I didn’t want to delay his coming any longer. I also knew that the time was coming when “probation" would close and we would be without a mediator. I had to be sinless by then. Much later, I was relieved when someone pointed out to me that we will always have a Savior. At that point, there may be no more switching of sides (requiring a mediator, see Revelation 22:11), but our sins are covered by Christ’s blood until the end when we are on God’s side.
Although this theology did spare me from the consequences of a typical teenage rebellion, LGT can be just as (if not more) harmful emotionally and spiritually. Even though we were told that we could overcome sin through Christ’s power, the focus was not on Jesus. I focused on my behavior. How was I performing? Isn’t that what the whole universe was supposedly focused on? Every time I messed up, I knew I would be lost unless I repented and started again from scratch. That was not a joyful Christian experience. It was miserable! I desperately wanted to be perfect so that I could be a part of the Last Generation.
I now see Christianity as a relationship. Because God is love, he created us for a relationship with him. That is our purpose. It is why we exist. Since we are born on a rebellious planet, God's primary objective is to win our hearts. He wants us to trust him. However, when we give God our hearts, we still have the weaknesses of the flesh. Even though our hearts are in the right place, we still mess up. When we fail because of the flesh, we do not lose our salvation. We haven’t turned our back on God. We love God. We want to do what is right, and when we get a new body at the resurrection (without any weaknesses), we will not be rebelling in heaven. It’s because God has won our hearts. We trust him. We love him.
It’s like a marriage (a biblical metaphor for our relationship with God). I am not a perfect husband. I make mistakes that hurt my wife (not physically). However, because I love my wife, I am sorry when I mess up. I don’t want to hurt her. When I mess up, I am still married to her. I haven’t turned my back and walked away. We are still in a relationship.
The only way to lose your salvation is to deliberately turn your back on God and walk away from him. He will never leave you. Even if you reject him completely, he will try to win your heart again.
I am convinced that we will never be perfect. We don’t have to be. When we are in a relationship with God, our sins are covered by Christ’s blood until the end. If God has won our hearts, we will get a flawless new body when Jesus comes. That is when our new hearts will finally be compatible with our bodies because our bodies will also be new.
Am I trying to make excuses for sin? Not at all. In fact, the harder I tried to overcome sin, the more I failed and became discouraged. Now I find that when I focus on my relationship with Jesus, the sins that seemed so appealing before, start to lose their power in his presence. It’s miraculous.