December 1, 2022
Dear Church Family,
This email is more like an epistle. It is long, theological, and practical. You may want to save it for a time when you can sit down and read it carefully.
I'm writing because of an ongoing conversation about salvation that is taking place in our church family. Many in our congregation have been blessed by the ministry of an organization known as Love Reality (https://www.lovereality.org/). There is a podcast connected with Love Reality known as "Death to Life" (https://www.lovereality.org/dtl) and it tells the stories of people, most of them Adventist, who were struggling with sin and with misconceptions of God and then they received the gospel and their lives were changed. Most episodes are long, but well worth the listen.
During the last year we've had several people associated with Love Reality come and speak at the Fletcher Church for weekend events organized by our Family Life ministry. We've seen good fruit from the ministry of Love Reality. People who had never understood God's love for them and the victory over sin that He offers us in Christ are now experiencing the joy of salvation. Others who have interacted with the teachings of Love Reality have had less positive reactions. Some have expressed concern that the teachings of Love Reality are unbiblical and incompatible with the Adventist understanding of salvation. This concern has led to some discussion and conflict within our church family and within the wider Adventist community in our area.
I am grateful for the way many people in our congregation have responded to the conflict by "examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so" (Acts 17:11) and by having honest conversations with those who see things differently, seeking to understand, seeking to correct error, seeking peace and unity in love (Matthew 18:15-17; James 1:19-20; Ephesians 4:2-4, 25; Jude 3). For many months, your pastors have been engaging in conversations about these matters with various people in our church family. We have involved the elders and church board in these conversations, seeking to have a biblical attitude towards what is happening in our church family. We rejoice and celebrate the way the gospel of Jesus is being received and lived out among us.
As pastors we recognize that we are stewards of the gospel (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:1). We have a responsibility to make sure that the priceless truth about Jesus is clearly taught and proclaimed within the church. There are enough people with questions and enough rumors circulating that I decided to write to all of you to let you know where your pastors stand on these matters and to urge you all to prayer and study. The devil seeks to blind us to the glory of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:4). The gospel is truly good news--the good news about what our Father has accomplished for us in Christ. Let us not allow controversy to become a tool in the devil's hands to turn us away from the gospel. This is not about winning an argument, neither is it a small thing. This is about receiving the good news of Jesus and living accordingly. I continue to study and grow in my understanding of the gospel as do Pastors James and Ivan. We are excited to be on the Christian journey with you.
It is not my intention in this email to comment much on the teachings of Love Reality. I find much to appreciate about their approach. As with any human teacher, the people who are part of Love Reality have biases and blindspots. I invite you to study for yourself as the Spirit leads you, but remember that we are not to be followers of any human teacher or ministry (1 Corinthians 3:4-10). We are followers of Jesus. We want to know what the Bible says and bring our lives into harmony with God's revelation.
So what do the scriptures teach about the gospel? The gospel is radically good news. It tells us that, in Christ, God has not only forgiven us our past sins (Romans 3:24-25, 2 Peter 1:9), but that we stand complete in Christ right now (Colossians 2:9-10, Ephesians 2:4-6, cf. Hebrews 10:14), alive to God and dead to sin (Romans 6:6-11), and we will not be condemned (Romans 8:1, John 5:24). The accomplishments of Jesus are true regardless of whether we believe them to be true, regardless of whether we feel them to be true.
How is the gospel received? In other words, how do these marvelous realities become activated in your life and mine? By faith (Romans 1:17). By believing in the heart and expressing with the mouth that these things are true, by "reckoning" them to be so (Romans 6:11, Romans 10:10). Essentially this means that we get to say, "I know that Jesus died for me and has paid the penalty for my sins. He has already made me alive in Him. It is an accomplished fact. I am accounting it to be so, I believe it is true." And we then experience the truth. God comes to abide in us by His Spirit. We have new life. In baptism we symbolically act out the truth of what Christ has accomplished, we become united with Him in His death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-4). By faith we know that we have eternal life now (1 John 5:13). Our security is not determined by our performance. We don't fall in and out of a saved condition based on how well we are behaving. We are saved by Christ, secure in Him.
The good news that there is no condemnation for those in Christ, that God's grace is always bigger than our sin (Romans 5:20) is unsettling. I can tell you as a parent of teenagers, that the boldness of the gospel can lead a parent to grow uncomfortable with its implications because the gospel leads naturally to the question, "If I'm not condemned when I mess up, does that mean I can just keep on sinning as much as I want?" (see Romans 6:1). But to fear that the gospel will lead to permissiveness is to miss out on the power of the gospel. Please hear this, and this is an important point: Until you've genuinely marveled over the reality that you can't outsin your salvation, you haven't understood the gospel. The grace of God really is that big and that good.
But the gospel does not merely cover up our mistakes, it transforms us. Sin loses its power over us when we realize the truth that Christ has already set us free from sin. We aren't condemned when we sin, but we are no longer slaves to sin. There is a new life principle at work in us (see Romans 8:1-4). A Christian is someone who has placed faith in Christ as the complete Savior and lives in relationship with Christ, rejoicing in the new life, identity, and power that comes from Christ.
A question that Adventists often ask when they hear the gospel proclaimed as I've just done is: "But aren't you teaching 'once saved always saved?' If you're saying that sinning doesn't cause me to lose salvation, you're not teaching an Adventist view of salvation." Let's explore this a bit.
The idea of "once saved always saved" is more accurately termed "perseverance of the saints." It is part of the Calvinist system of theology and is intimately linked with a view of predestination which asserts that God determined in advance everyone who would be saved and everyone who would be lost. This idea of predestination and its denigration of human choice in salvation is antithetical to Adventist theology. Adventists hold to the Arminian view of salvation and we understand that the Great Controversy between Christ and Satan centers on the character of God. Satan asserts that God is a tyrant who imposes His will on the universe. On the other hand, Jesus reveals that God is patiently demonstrating that He is indeed characterized by love (1 John 4:8). As Adventists, we recognize and proclaim the good news that love does not coerce. Love gives freedom. God is love. He is relational. He loves all people, but He will not force anyone to love Him in return. He does not force people to be saved or lost, He always gives choice.
Choice remains even after a person is saved. If that is so, salvation can be lost. But will sinning cause a person to lose salvation? The biblical answer (as explained above) is no. In other words, sinning (even repeatedly) will not cause Jesus to cast us away. But sin, if it is becoming entrenched in the life, is a wake up call that I am on a path leading away from Jesus. The way I lose salvation is by choosing to reject Jesus. Salvation is like moving to another country (cf. Colossians 1:13, Philippians 3:20, Romans 12:2). Consider this parable, as imperfect as it is: When you accept Christ you gain a new citizenship and move to a new home far from your old one. The culture is very different in your new homeland. People genuinely love each other, they praise God all the time, they give sacrificially and joyfully. You like the new culture and you accept it as your own, but you sometimes find yourself still behaving like you used to behave in the old country. Some habits die hard. When you act out of character with your new identity, however, you are still a citizen of the new country. The king of the land doesn't throw you out when you mess up. He covers you with grace and teaches you his ways. Suppose, however, that you find yourself missing the old ways and starting to enjoy behaving like you used to live. You are still a citizen of a new land, but the affections of your heart and your way of life are more and more in harmony with the old country. Those affections and behaviors are warning signs that you may be considering packing up your things and moving back to your former home. The move won't be quick or easy, but it is possible. You can choose to renounce your citizenship in your new country and move back to your first home, but you will have to take deliberate steps for it to happen. You won't suddenly wake up one morning and find that your citizenship switched. You will have seen it coming.
One weakness of the parable is that it doesn’t even begin to describe the marvelous character transformation that takes place when we receive the good news about what Jesus has accomplished for us. It’s not just that we move to a new country. We have a new identity, a new heart. This character transformation is known in the Bible as sanctification. It may be helpful to think of it as "growing in Christ," the description used in belief #11 of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists (https://www.adventist.org/beliefs/). Here is the remarkable thing about sanctification: It is an ongoing process rooted in the accomplished work of Jesus. The only way we can grow in Christ is when we are secure in Him and when we know that He has already sanctified us. That is a paradox, but it is what the Bible teaches. There are three tenses of sanctification used in the New Testament: past (1 Corinthians 1:2, 6:19; Acts 20:32), present (Romans 6:22; 2 Corinthians 7:1), and future tense (Ephesians 5:25-27; 1 Thessalonians 3:12-13). We are already sanctified in Christ, we are being sanctified, and we will be sanctified. We are already sanctified by what Jesus has done for us, so we get to grow in that sanctification. Paul begins his first letter to the Corinthians by calling them "saints," (1 Corinthians 1:2) which means "holy ones." He speaks as if they are already sanctified even though it is clear later in the letter that they are not exactly living holy lives. Why does he speak this way? Because in Christ we are already made holy. God imparts to us the accomplished sanctification of Jesus. And then the holiness of Jesus, which we already possess, gets worked out in our lives. It is a process.
The dynamics of salvation outlined above help us to understand how the Bible teaches that we are justified by faith in Christ alone (Romans 3:28, 4:5; Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5) and yet we are judged by our works (Matthew 16:27; John 5:28-29; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Revelation 22:12). A person who has become a citizen of the new country and continues to live there, in relationship with the king and new family members, has a transformed life. New patterns of thought and action take hold in the life. Truly such a person has passed from death to life, from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of life (Colossians 1:13). A person who lives in the new country will become more and more like the king of the new country. It will be evident to everyone that a major change has occurred. That's why works are used for judgment. A person who knows that Jesus has given complete salvation will live in a whole new way. Not in order to earn salvation, but because salvation has already been given. Works are the fruit of salvation, not the root. They are evidence that salvation has occurred. A person who continues to love sinning or remains blind to the reality and the problem of sin is someone who is still living in the kingdom of darkness. The actions (works) reveal the heart.
The gospel is good news, better news than we could have dared to hope. Jesus is a complete Savior. He has accomplished everything necessary for our salvation and he lives and works even now as our High Priest (Hebrews 7:25). Let us rejoice together in Jesus. Let us rejoice in the transformed lives, freedom from sin, and saved marriages in our congregation. Let us keep praying, studying the scriptures, and dialoguing with each other.
If you have questions, your pastors would be happy to talk with you and pray with you. We also have things to learn from you, so don't hesitate to share what you are learning in your walk with Jesus.
Yours in Christ,