How Are We Saved? The Character of God and the Atonement in the Adventist Church (Part 1)

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How Are We Saved? The Character of God and the Atonement in the Adventist Church (Part 1)

What is sin? Why did Jesus die on the cross? How are we saved? Is God’s character both loving and just, wrathful and gracious?

These are profound questions—ones that require humble, thoughtful study and biblical reflection. Two recent books by Seventh-day Adventist authors have sought to answer these questions in ways that occasion careful analysis.

Sin, Punishment, and Forgiveness

Timothy Jennings, M.D., in a recent book called The God-Shaped Brain, suggests that sin consists of fear and selfishness, but that this “isn’t our fault” since we were born with a “terminal illness.”[1] Rejecting the idea that Jesus took our place and was punished for our sins, he also discards the idea of a punishment from God altogether.[2] He suggests that the purpose of the cross was to “reestablish trust,”[3] not to pay the penalty for His broken Law.

For Jennings, sin always brings its own punishment. God does not keep any records of sin in heaven for which we need Christ’s intercession, atonement, and forgiveness. Rather, God is like your doctor, who prescribes a remedy and treatment for your illness. The idea of Christ taking our place is ridiculed as the equivalent of the doctor examining a healthy patient in place of the sick one. In this view, salvation consists of healing our minds and recognizing that God does not punish or need the death of Christ in order to forgive us.[4] The ultimate result in Jennings’ view is that God’s healing brings us to a place where we will have “no defects” and “no longer need the written law.”[5]

Another recent book from multiple Adventist authors (including Jennings), Servant God: The Cosmic Conflict over God’s Trustworthiness, propounds the same message. Herb Montgomery suggests that the results of sin are automatic—sin itself punishes, not God. He forgives everyone unconditionally; thus the only difference between the saved and the lost is “not that one group is forgiven and the other isn’t” but rather that some “believe how thoroughly and deeply they have [already] been forgiven.”[6] God accepts us “as we are, in all of our sinfulness,” without substitution or atonement.[7]

Another of the authors, Sue Lewis, suggests that the idea of the substitutionary death of Christ is the equivalent of human sacrifice, and that God forgives without the need for a sacrificial substitute.[8] “Christ did not need to be executed to make God willing to forgive and heal our hearts.”[9] God’s wrath is viewed as being only a giving over of sinful people to their rebellion, not in any way something related to punishment, revulsion, or retribution.[10]

Where Do These Ideas Come From?

Some of these ideas are by no means new in our history. According to Dr. Woodrow Whidden’s seminal biography of E.J. Waggoner, one of them—the denial of Christ’s substitutionary atonement—goes all the way back to this key figure.[11] Though he was greatly used by God in 1888 to draw attention to Christ’s salvation, Waggoner’s views began to change when he went to England in 1892. There he came under the influence of Edward Irving,[12] who taught against the substitutionary death of Christ.

In an article called “Why did Christ Die?”[13] Waggoner wrote (like these recent authors above) that “a sacrifice was not demanded.” He caricatured the idea of substitution in this way: “God was so angry at man for having sinned, that He could not be mollified without seeing blood flow; but it made no difference to Him whose blood it was, if only somebody was killed: and that since Christ’s life was worth more than the lives of all men, He accepted Him as a substitute for them.” Instead, wrote Waggoner, Christ died “to break down man’s enmity.”

This denial of the need for Christ’s substitutionary atonement has probably been most popularized in Adventism by Graham Maxwell (who has made many otherwise positive contributions to Adventism). In his books, Can God Be Trusted and Servants or Friends, Maxwell propounded essentially all of the ideas that Jennings and the other authors of Servant God are embracing.[14] For Maxwell, sin is “not a legal problem,” and there is no need for a substitute or the shedding of blood to allow for forgiveness.[15] Those who accept his view are God’s friends, but those who accept a substitutionary view are mere servants.

Positives and Negatives

What are we to make of these ideas? Certainly, not all of them are wrong. It is true, as several of the above authors observe, that we are all born with the “illness” of sin in us (Ps. 51:5; Prov. 22:15; Eph. 2:3; Gen. 8:21) and that sin does bring natural consequences (Gal. 6:7; Hos. 8:7). It is also correct that God desires us to know Him—His character of love—and that He longs to change our sometimes distorted thinking about Him (Jer. 24:7; 1 John 4:8; Ezek. 18).

But the ideas that the results of sin are only intrinsic or natural; that Jesus was not our Substitute on the cross, paying the penalty for our sins; that vengeance and retribution have no place in God’s character; and thus that the final destruction of the lost is self-generated seem to quite clearly stand at odds with many biblical passages. 

What Is Sin?

The idea that sin brings its own punishment, while partially true, is not a sufficiently conceived description of its horrendous nature. According to Jennings’ views, we are not essentially accountable to God for our sin. As we saw above, he believes that because we were born into a sinful condition, we are no more accountable for our sin than is a patient with a disease. But does this follow?

First of all, this view does not take sufficiently into account the role of Adam as our representative. Because of the Fall, we all enter the world in a lost, condemned state (Rom. 5:12-21). “Through one trespass there is condemnation for everyone” (Rom. 5:18, HCSB). As Ellen White put it, “The inheritance of children is that of sin. Sin has separated them from God. Jesus gave His life that He might unite the broken links to God. As related to the first Adam, men receive from him nothing but guilt and the sentence of death” (CG 475, emphasis supplied). Condemnation and guilt come upon on all because Adam, as the first representative of the human race, bequeathed “guilt and the sentence of death” to all his progeny.[16]

We are not born as a “clean slate.” Our initial condition brings God’s revulsion and wrath (Eph. 2:3). Contrary to what many suppose, volition is not a condition of guilt; we are guilty for unintentional sins, and these require atonement (see Lev. 4-6; Heb. 9:7).[17] We are all born with sinful natures that are out of harmony with God, and God cannot accept us in this state, though we did not choose it. From the moment of our first breath, every human being stands condemned and guilty before God because of what we are in Adam.

This may seem unfair at first, but it is not the whole story. Because “the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men” (Titus 2:11, NKJV) ever since Adam fell—on the basis of Christ’s promised and later actualized atonement—all have an opportunity to accept Christ and escape this condemnation, because He does not want any to perish (2 Pet. 3:9). He is the Second Adam who becomes our representative ifwe accept Him by faith (Rom 5:12-21). God desires our response of love for what He has done. We are justified by faith when we accept the gift of Christ’s righteousness (Rom. 5:17).[18] Until that time, we are under the wrath of God (John 3:18-19, 36; Eph. 2:3) and will remain so until we accept Christ.[19]

But as these authors would rightly acknowledge, no one can be lost on the basis of inheritance alone. Anyone who is lost is lost because they do not accept the remedy for sin. Our inheritance is not our only problem. All human beings have embraced and willingly acquiesced to this inheritance by choosing to disobey God. In both of these ways, “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23),[20] and “whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (Rom 3:19). “There is no one who does not sin” (2 Chron. 6:36). All who break God’s law are under its curse (Gal. 3:10, 22) and “deserve to die” (Rom 1:32). We are indeed accountable to God for who we are and what we have done.

So then what is the remedy for our condition? According to Jennings and the other authors of Servant God, the remedy is not forgiveness on the basis of the substitutionary death of Christ on the cross, but rather a change of thinking in the human being—an enlightened understanding. Certainly God wishes for us to be healed in our minds. But why does it have to be one and not the other? Why could it not be the case that God’s forgiveness offered through the substitutionary death of Christ is part of the very means He has for healing our condition?

This, in fact, appears to be exactly what Paul suggests in Romans. After describing the reality that “there is none righteous, not even one” (Rom. 3:10, NASB) and that the Law of God condemns every human being (3:19), he explains the solution:

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom 3:23-26).

Sin is in fact a legal problem. We need forgiveness for breaking God’s Law. We are condemned by the Law of God and deserve death, but God’s justice was displayed by Christ becoming the propitiation for our sins. This word propitiation (ἱλαστήριον) is connected to the sanctuary service and the “mercy seat” where blood was applied on the Day of Atonement to the Ark of the Covenant to atone for the sins of the people (Ex. 25:17-22; Lev. 16:2; 13-15). Paul (above) and John apply this to what Christ has done for us in His death (1 John 2:2; 4:10). This well-known passage from Isaiah seems to clearly indicate that Christ’s death is substitutionary.

He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. . . . Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors (Isa. 53:3-6, 10-12).

As Paul points out, it is the very justification we receive by accepting Christ’s death that causes us to “have peace with God” (Rom. 5:1) and to be reconciled to Him. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Rom. 5:8-10).

Notice that God does indeed have wrath, but we need not fear it if we have Christ. It is only those who reject God’s means of salvation through Christ that must face His vengeance and wrath (Rom. 2:5; 2 Thess. 1:8; Heb. 10:30).

Is God Exactly Like Your Family Doctor?

Yes, God is our Great Physician who wishes to heal us. But no, God is not a fellow human being to whom we go for physical improvement. No, the Father laying our sins on Jesus is not the same as human sacrifice. The Trinity was in agreement concerning the plan of salvation. The Triune God poured out Their love to us by sacrifice in the Person of Christ, and all three Persons suffered at the cross. Jesus was not an unwilling victim. He laid His life down for us (Mark 10:45; John 10:15-18). No, a doctor placing a healthy patient’s records in place of a sick one is not at all the same as Christ’s imputed righteousness accepted in our behalf (2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 5:18-19; SC 62; 1 SM 396) and what is taught in our sanctuary doctrine: that the books of heaven contain records of our sins, and that these are erased on the basis of Christ’s atoning death (Dan. 7:10; Rev. 20:11-15; 21:27; 5T 471; GC 483).

God is the Creator of the universe, and as such He cannot allow the breaking of His Law without the punishment of death. This fact is revealed by the results of the final judgment—those who refuse Christ’s salvation are destroyed by a direct act of God (Rev. 20:9; 11-15; Rom. 2:5-9; 12:19; Heb. 10:26-31; 2 Thess. 1:8-10). And while it is true that all of us die because we are sinners, there are times when God actively executes people. Throughout Scripture God both allows sin to have its natural results as well as sometimes actively punishing and killing recalcitrant sinners (e.g., the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, Israel, Israel’s enemies, Nadab and Abihu, Ananias and Sapphira, King Herod, etc.). These people did not naturally self-destruct. And the final judgment of God is such that the lost are “thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:15)—it does not say that they willingly jump into it. Sin and rebellion against the Creator are treasonous offenses, and there is no such thing as unconditional forgiveness.

Satan deceives many with the plausible theory that God’s love for His people is so great that He will excuse sin in them; he represents that while the threatenings of God’s word are to serve a certain purpose in His moral government, they are never to be literally fulfilled. But in all His dealings with His creatures God has maintained the principles of righteousness by revealing sin in its true character—by demonstrating that its sure result is misery and death. The unconditional pardon of sin never has been, and never will be. Such pardon would show the abandonment of the principles of righteousness, which are the very foundation of the government of God. It would fill the unfallen universe with consternation. God has faithfully pointed out the results of sin, and if these warnings were not true, how could we be sure that His promises would be fulfilled? That so-called benevolence which would set aside justice is not benevolence but weakness. God is the life-giver. From the beginning all His laws were ordained to life. But sin broke in upon the order that God had established, and discord followed. So long as sin exists, suffering and death are inevitable. It is only because the Redeemer has borne the curse of sin in our behalf that man can hope to escape, in his own person, its dire results. (PP 522, emphasis supplied.)

“Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22). “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life” (Lev. 17:11). It is Jesus who came that “by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9). “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1Pet. 2:24). “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). God is loving and just, wrathful and merciful. God was not made loving by the propitiation, but He provided it because He is loving.

But this great sacrifice was not made in order to create in the Father’s heart a love for man, not to make Him willing to save. No, no! “God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son.” John 3:16. The Father loves us, not because of the great propitiation, but He provided the propitiation because He loves us. . . . God suffered with His Son. In the agony of Gethsemane, the death of Calvary, the heart of Infinite Love paid the price of our redemption. (SC 13.)



[1]Timothy Jennings, The God-Shaped Brain, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013), 127.

[2]Ibid., 72. “Whatever the reason for God’s [past] action[s], it could not be as I had been taught since childhood—that God inflicted punishment for sin. If punishment were the reason, then he would still be doling it out, since wickedness has in no way diminished. I realized, even using the logic of those who believe God does inflict punishment for sin, that he would never inflict it before judgment. And since the judgment hasn’t yet happened, then his actions in the past were not for the purpose of punishing.”

[3]Ibid., 165.

[4]Ibid., 130-133.

[5]Ibid., 175.

[6]Dorothee Cole, ed. Servant God: The Cosmic Conflict over God’s Trustworthiness (Loma Linda, California: Loma Linda University Press), 350.


[8]Ibid., 306.

[9]Ibid., 309.

[10]Ibid., 364-365.

[11]Woodrow Whidden, E.J. Waggoner: From the Physician of Good News to Agent of Division (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2008), 269-273.

[12]William H. Grotheer, An Interpretive History of the Doctrine of the Incarnation as Taught by the SDA Church (typescript), 30, 32. See also Jean Zurcher, Touched with Our Feelings (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1999), 82.

[13]Present Truth, Sept. 21, 1893.

[14]Graham Maxwell, Can God Be Trusted? (Nashville, TN: Southern Publishing Association, 1977); Servants or Friends: Another Look at God (Redlands, CA: Pineknoll Publications, 1992).

[15]Maxwell, Servants, 111-112.

[16]Please note that I am not advocating the particular view of “original sin” that includes the idea that all human beings sinned “in Adam”—that we all sinned when he did. Rather I am suggesting that Paul’s point in Romans 5 is that because of Adam’s sin as our representative, all of us are born in a sinful state which is condemned by God—we thus need a Savior from the start. Jesus, the second Adam, reverses the sinful condition for those who “receive the gift of righteousness” (vs. 17). Some have suggested that passages such as Ezek. 18 are arguments against the view presented here. But this is dealing with a different issue: The Israelites were complaining that they were doomed because of what their parents had done, but God was telling them that they could become different people than their parents. It is a chapter about individual responsibility and consequences; it is not dealing with the question of Adam’s role in our sinful state and condemnation, as is Romans 5. My view is similar to that of Biblical Research Institute writer Gerhard Pfandl, who writes, “It may be useful to distinguish between Adam’s guilt and our guilt as a consequence of our inherited sinfulness. We do not inherit Adam’s [personal] guilt, but as a consequence of Adam’s fall we are born distant from God, out of harmony with his will, in a state of sin which is condemnable and therefore we are guilty before God. E.G. White may be referring to this guilt” (Gerhard Pfandl,, 20). I recognize that not all SDA teachers and theologians view these passages of Scripture and Ellen White in exactly these ways, and I am open to further insights after further study.

[17]James 4:17 is a verse often used to mean that there is no such thing as unintentional sin. But it refers rather to what are called “sins of omission.” When someone knows the good that needs to be done and does not do it, they are sinning. The Bible is clear that unintentional sins are still sins (see passages cited above).

[18]Some SDAs believe in what is called “universal legal justification.” This is the idea that everyone is born justified by the cross. They then need to experience a second stage of justification during their lifetimes. This view seems at odds with Paul’s repeated point that we are “justified by faith” in Christ and willingly receiving His gift of salvation (Rom. 3:24, 25, 28; 4:3-5, 23-25; 5:1; 9:30; Gal. 3:24; Eph. 2:8-10; etc.). Justification is offered to all, but only those who “receive the overflow of grace and the gift of righteousness” (Rom. 5:17, HCSB, emphasis supplied) are actually justified.

[19]For those who die before reaching the age at which they can make a decision, we trust the mercies of God through Christ’s atonement (see 2SM 260; 3SM 313-315).

[20]Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture passages come from the English Standard Version, ESV.

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About the author


Timothy Arena is a Ph.D. student at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary studying systematic theology with a cognate in New Testament. He is a gifted pianist and is passionate about Seventh-day Adventist theology and history.