From the time that the Seventh-day Adventist Church was founded in the mid-19th century, we’ve seen ourselves as a movement called by God to emphasize neglected truths of the Bible. We often assumed that we share the basics of Christianity with other Christians, and that God has called us to emphasize certain distinctives like the Sabbath, the state of the dead, healthful living, the sanctuary, and so on.
And we have sometimes so emphasized what is distinctive to us that we have neglected the basics. We have sometimes so emphasized things that we think we need to do, that we have not emphasized clearly enough that which Christ has done.
We’ve talked the law, but have sometimes neglected preaching the gospel. We’ve done it as a church—we’ve done it as individuals.
But the gospel is the one thing above all others that we must preach. As a church, and as individuals.
Mark 1:15 summarizes Jesus’ message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.”
Jesus established the church for the purpose of preaching the gospel—and when it has finished that work, the end will come, as we read in Matthew 24:14, “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.”
The gospel has been preached for 2000 years, sometimes clearly, sometimes not so clearly. But in every age it has been good news. In every age it has been the same good news. And before the end there shall be a final proclamation of the gospel, as we read in Revelation 14:
6And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people,
And this is what I want to focus on in this second sermon on last day events. The preaching of the gospel is the clearest sign we have of the end—not earthquakes and storms and wars, all of which we’ve had in abundance for 2000 years. The preaching of the gospel to the whole world is the one thing that must happen before the end can come. And this text in Revelation 14 speaks of a final emphasis to that work.
But notice. This angel’s message is not a new message. It is not a new gospel. John calls it the “everlasting Gospel.” For Jesus does not change. Jesus cannot change. He is the same yesterday, and today, and forever. And so is the gospel.
Paul had to remind the Galatians of this early on—for they had already forgotten it. We read in Galatians 1, starting with verse six:
6I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: 7Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. 8But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. 9As we said before, so say I now again, if any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.
And as a pastor, I want to preach the gospel to you. That is the only thing I have to preach to you. Each sermon I preach should be just looking at the same gospel from a different angle. I feel as Paul did when he said in1 Corinthians 9:16 “necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!”
But what is the gospel? Romans 1:15-17. Paul writes,
15So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also. 16For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. 17For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.
This is the essence of the Gospel—Christ is our righteousness. He alone. We are sinners, with no righteousness of our own. But he is our righteousness. He is our substitute. He is our redeemer. In him alone we have forgiveness of our sins. It is a free gift, which we receive by faith alone. “It is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast,” Ephesians 2, 8-9.
Our denomination faced a crisis on this point at the General Conference session in 1888, held in Minneapolis Minnesota. The crisis had been building for a year by the time that session met in October 1888. A couple of young men were preaching and writing things that had some other church leaders worried. Their names were Ellet Joseph Waggoner and Alonzo Trevier Jones. EJ Waggoner was a 33 year old physician and minister in 1888. His father, J. H. Waggoner, was one of our most important early evangelists. AT Jones was 38, an Army veteran converted in tent meetings in Walla Walla, Washington. In 1885 Waggoner and Jones became the editors of the church’s western paper, The Signs of the Times. And it was in its pages that they wrote about the good news of Jesus Christ.
They made some folks nervous back in Battle Creek, MI, where the church’s headquarters was located. Folks like George Butler, the General Conference president, and Uriah Smith, editor of the Review and Herald.
Jones and Waggoner were prolific writers, and they were brash, and they challenged accepted positions on a number of issues. One of the issues involved prophetic interpretation. Following many prophetic interpreters before us, we have seen the ten horns of Daniel 7 as ten barbarian tribes that supplanted Rome. But which tribes? Smith identified one as the Huns—Jones did his own historical research and said that was wrong, it should be the Alemanni.
That was the first issue. But what’s it got to do with the gospel? Nothing, really. And so it illustrates the danger of making mountains out of molehills. Butler and Smith and their supporters imagined that if they were wrong on this one point, it would call into question all of our prophetic interpretations. We’ve preached it for decades, they said. People will ridicule us if we say we were wrong. Simply put, it became a matter of pride. And Minneapolis became a battleground between stubborn advocates of competing positions on a trivial subject. Positions were dug in and reinforced. People were asked, “Which horn are you? Are you a Hun or an Alemanni?” That led Ellen White to quip, “There are far too many horns.” And that was the tragedy of the Minneapolis General Conference: some were so set on defending their views on minor issues that they were unable to open their minds to consider more important issues.
The second issue debated in the months before Minneapolis was the question of the Law in the Book of Galatians. Paul says in Galatians 3:23ff
But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. 24Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. 25But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.
What law is Paul talking about? George Butler and other old school Adventists said it was the ceremonial law. They argued that Paul is talking about the situation of the Jews before Christ came—that they had the ceremonial law to instruct them about Christ, and to prepare them for Christ. Once he came, that law of sacrifices and ceremonies was done away with.
But Waggoner and Jones said while that was true in one respect, it doesn’t exhaust Paul’s meaning. They said it is the entire law, but especially the Ten Commandments, that Paul refers to. The law shows us we are sinners, it shows us our need of Christ, it drives us to him—and now, in Christ, we have forgiveness and redemption. We are no longer under the law’s condemnation, we are free in Christ.
Butler and Smith felt that they had to defend the Ten Commandments. They imagined that if they admitted they were wrong on this point, it could undermine the entire Adventist position on the necessity of keeping the Ten Commandments. Waggoner and Jones didn’t deny that we must keep the Ten Commandments—they were Seventh-day Adventists after all–but they insisted that we don’t keep them in order to be saved. We keep them because we are saved.
Butler and Smith didn’t hear this important point. They were too busy making their own arguments—and not always from the Bible. They said, “Ellen White said we were right! So there!” But they couldn’t find the letter she had supposedly written some years before. Neither could she. And she thought that a good thing. Here’s what she said in a letter she wrote to the delegates a couple of months before the General Conference:
“The word of God is the great detector of error; to it we believe everything must be brought. The Bible must be our standard for every doctrine and preaching. We must study it reverentially. We are to receive no one’s opinion without comparing it with the Scriptures. Here is divine authority which is supreme in matters of faith.
“It is the word of the living God that is to decide all controversies. It is when men mingle their own human smartness with God’s words of truth in giving sharp thrusts to those who are in controversy with them, that they show that they have not a sacred reverence for God’s inspired word. They mix the human with the divine, the common with the sacred, and they belittle God’s word.
“We must in searching the Scriptures be filled with wisdom and power that is above the human, which will so soften and subdue our hard hearts that we will search the Scriptures as diligent students, and will receive the ingrafted word, that we may know the truth, that we may teach it to others as it is in Jesus.” Ellen White, “To Brethren Who Shall Assemble in General Conference,” August 5, 1888.
Ellen was insistent—don’t drag me into your battles. Don’t try to use my word to make points. And don’t try to impress people with your human arguments. Study the Bible only. She also warned that both sides were too arrogant, too sharp in their choice of words, too lacking the spirit of Christ. They all needed to humble themselves before one another, and before God, and come back in the spirit of brotherly love and Christian concern.
The third issue, after the questions of the horns and the law, had to do with the righteousness of Christ. What does it mean that we have Christ’s righteousness? It it something external to us, or is it something we do? What does it mean to have “the faith of Jesus”? Is it faith in Jesus, or is it believing the things Jesus said, and keeping his law?
On this issue, as in the dispute over the law in Galatians, Smith and Butler sought to defend the law, and to urge the necessity of keeping the law. Jones and Waggoner lifted up Christ, and his righteousness, and justification by faith alone.
Uriah Smith wrote in the Review and Herald in January 1888 that “The central purpose of Adventism is to lead souls to Christ through obedience to this closing testing truth,” that is, the keeping of all the Ten Commandments. He noted Jesus’ advice to the rich young ruler– “Obey and live.” Oh, he said, yes, when we became Christians, we were justified by faith. Our past sins were forgiven—but now that we are Christians, it is up to us.
Waggoner replied to Smith in editorials in the Signs of the Times the next month. Waggoner pointed to the Scribes and Pharisees, who “trusted to their own works and did not submit to the righteousness of God.” Let me read from Waggoner, so you get the full flavor of his argument:
But why is it that the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees could not count for something? And why could they not be counted as nearer the kingdom of God than those who were openly vicious? For the reason given in Rom. 14:23: “For whatever is not from faith is sin.” How can this be? Just this way: Simple outward righteousness is as much righteousness as any man can attain by himself; but this is so far below the righteousness that God requires that it is indeed sin. It isn’t real righteousness at all. Thus Isaiah says: “But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; we all fade as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away” (Isa. 64:6). Anyone who has any just conception of God must acknowledge the truth of this. Whose righteousness can bear any comparison to the righteousness of God? Compared with the spotlessness of his character, the righteousness of the best of men (that is, their own natural or acquired righteousness) must be acknowledged to be but filthy rags.
Then what will be the condition of the man who looks at his own good works with complacency, and who thinks to atone for his shortcomings by his own good deeds? He is simply trying to cover one filthy, ragged garment by putting on some more filthy rags. Instead of making himself better, he is in a worse plight.
Paul says: “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.” But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for “the just shall live by faith”(Gal. 3:10, 11). That is, a curse is pronounced upon all who do not keep the whole law. But “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), and moreover, no man is able of himself to keep the law, no matter how hard he may try. (Gal. 5:17). Therefore, all who trust in their own works are necessarily under the curse of the law.
How foolish then for one sinner to compare himself with another; for one to think that he has not so great a work to do to be saved, as some other one has, because he has not lived so wicked a life as that other one has! Both have been wicked, although perhaps not to the same degree; and therefore both need the cleansing blood of Christ. They cannot be saved without Christ “for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). There is nothing but the blood of Jesus that can wash away sin. Therefore sinners, both great and small, must all do the same thing; they must go to Christ for cleansing. There is just as much for one to do as for another. And since the love of God in Christ is infinite, it is just as easy for him to cleanse the vilest sinner as the most scrupulous Pharisee.
When the sinner has been justified by faith, what then? Then “the just shall live by faith.” “This is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith” (1 John 5:4). “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4). Then the one, who has the most faith, will live the most upright life. Of course, for human righteousness is of no more worth after a man is justified than it was before. Says Christ, “Without me ye can do nothing.”
“For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith” (Rom. 12:3). How highly ought a man to think of himself? Just as much as upright Job did after he had seen the righteousness of God. Said he, “I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job. 42:6). Then how much have we to do to prepare to meet Christ in peace? We have to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God, and to exercise much faith, —the real faith that works by love. (Gal. 5:6). Then will Christ be made unto us “wisdom from God – and righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1Cor. 1:30). “Now this is His name by which He will be called: THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS” (Jer. 23:6).
Smith said Waggoner was playing into the hands of those who would do away with the law. “Perfect obedience to the law will develop perfect righteousness, and that is the only way any one can attain to righteousness.” There is a righteousness to be obtained by doing and teaching the commandments.”
Ellen White responded, “Brother Smith is confused.”
On this point of the nature of the gospel, Ellen White agreed wholeheartedly with Jones and Waggoner. She saw that God had given them “a most precious message.”
The Lord in His great mercy sent a most precious message to His people through Elders Waggoner and Jones. This message was to bring more prominently before the world the uplifted Saviour, the sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. It presented justification through faith in the Surety; it invited the people to receive the righteousness of Christ, which is made manifest in obedience to all the commandments of God. Many had lost sight of Jesus. They needed to have their eyes directed to His divine person, His merits, and His changeless love for the human family. All power is given into His hands, that He may dispense rich gifts unto men, imparting the priceless gift of His own righteousness to the helpless human agent. This is the message that God commanded to be given to the world. It is the third angel’s message, which is to be proclaimed with a loud voice, and attended with the outpouring of His Spirit in a large measure.
So do not let anyone tell you that you need something more than Jesus. Don’t let anyone suggest that they have something you don’t. Their sins are as black as yours, even if they are different. And their good deeds, like yours, will never measure up to the perfection the law demands. But if you have faith in Jesus, he forgives you. He declares you “not guilty.” He clothes you in his robe of spotless righteousness. He justifies you—by faith alone.
And that robe that he covers you with now—it is going to stay with you. Some imagine that when we get to the judgment he will yank it away and you will have to stand before the law on your own. But the judgment is good news—because “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” He is our great high priest, interceding for us before the Father’s throne. Your name is written in the palms of his hands. He shed his blood for you, and in the judgment he pleads that blood. So contrary to what some have said, the judgment is not something to fear—for the Christian, we know its verdict now. That’s what justification means—it means we have the verdict, not guilty, now, in advance, in Jesus Christ.
You see, we can’t stand on our own. Not now, not in the judgment. We need Jesus. And he will always be there, on our side. “I will never leave you, nor forsake you,” he promises.
And that’s good news. Now and forever. That is the gospel—the everlasting Gospel.