How Are We Saved? The Character of God and the Atonement in the Adventist Church (Part 2)

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How Are We Saved? The Character of God and the Atonement in the Adventist Church (Part 2)

How Did This Happen?

I would suggest that the ideas of Waggoner, Maxwell, Jennings, and others about sin, punishment, and atonement did not arise in a vacuum. They arose in environments of fear where the Good News of Christ’s substitutionary life and death were not adequately taught or emphasized in the right ways. The views they hold are overreactions toward a religion without hope. Since they had no assurance from the gospel, including the true idea of God’s wrath being removed by Christ’s atonement, they sought to remove His wrath altogether. It appears that they were not sufficiently aware of the great peace and hope that knowing Christ’s substitution brings. Jennings writes about his upbringing as follows:

We were told that God sends his recording angels to follow us everywhere we go and faithfully write down every sin we commit in heaven’s record books. Only by confessing our sins and asking Jesus to forgive could the sins be erased from those heavenly ledgers. If we didn’t ask Jesus to forgive, our sins would remain in the books and, at judgment, when God saw them, he would punish accordingly. I experienced so many restless nights, so many nightmares because of that story. Most alarming of all, I found myself becoming afraid of God. I worried I might forget to confess a sin and not get it erased. In my imagination I could see that angel with the golden clipboard following me around, hounding my every step, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t feel God’s love as much as I felt his scrutiny. I didn’t want to make mistakes, so I worked hard to do everything right. I paid my tithe, read my Bible, prayed three times a day and imagined all the good things I did were being recorded by the angel and hoped it counted for something. But I didn’t have peace. All my actions were based on fear of punishment, not love for God and my fellow human beings, for love does not flow where lies about God are retained.[1]

Sadly, there is no Good News here. If Jennings’ recollections are accurate, he was not taught about the true meaning of the cross, about the imputed righteousness of Christ that covers us even as we are growing,[2] or about the fact that it is not the confession of our sins that saves us, but rather Christ’s substituting life and death that save us when we accept them by faith. Our confession of sin is a necessary condition to keep our eyes focused on the cross of Christ (1 John 1:8-2:2), but it is not some kind of meritorious basis for our salvation. Confession and repentance are daily reminders of Christ’s love manifested at Calvary, not meritorious means to God’s favor.

Jennings, and probably some of these other authors as well, did not find the gospel of a loving God in Adventism, so they have made one of their own devising. We should thus be very understanding and patient with our friends[3] who hold these views.

Why Does It Matter?

What is the bottom line?

  • Christ’s death and His righteous life credited to our account are what save us (Rom. 3:25-26; 5:18; 2 Cor. 5:21) His character is accepted in the place of our character (SC 62). Justification by Christ’s imputed righteousness—His perfect life and obedience credited to our account—is our title to heaven (Phil. 3:9; Rom. 3:18-19; 2 Cor. 5:21; RH June 4, 1895; 1SM 396).
  • Our faith in this substitution is necessary for its inevitable result—new birth, healing, and a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17).
  • Those whom God justifies, he also necessarily sanctifies (makes fit for heaven—see 1SM 396). Those who want only pardon but not transformation will have neither.
  • But our salvation is a gift based on nothing good in us. Our righteousness is as filthy rags (Isa. 64:6), and everything we do, even our prayers and obedience, is defiled by the sin of our “corrupt earthly channels” (1 SM 344). “Man’s obedience can be made perfect only by the incense of Christ’s righteousness, which fills with divine fragrance every act of obedience” (AA 561, cf. Ex. 28:38-40; Heb. 7:25; Ps. 143:2).

The inevitable conclusion to draw from our friends who deny the above realities is that it is our own works and enlightenment that are the basis for our salvation, not Christ’s substituting life and death. Thus they are, it seems, unwittingly exchanging one form of works-based salvation for another. What makes Christianity unique is its insistence that we are saved as a pure gift of grace, not by anything at all of any good in us. God asks only for our acceptance of this gift by faith and trust in His forgiving and transforming power. Our transformation is not the basis of our salvation, but rather the fruit of our salvation (Rom. 3-5; 6:22-23). As Ellen White wrote, “We do not earn salvation by our obedience; for salvation is the free gift of God, to be received by faith. But obedience is the fruit of faith” (SC 61).

It is not surprising that for both Waggoner and Maxwell, justification has nothing to do with Christ’s character and obedience being accepted in place of ours (Rom. 5:18-19; 2 Cor. 5:21; SC 62; 1SM 396) but rather our own obedience and enlightenment.[4] Waggoner wrote that justification “does not mean that Christ’s righteousness . . . is laid up for the sinner, simply to be credited to his account.”[5] Maxwell wrote that it is only unenlightened “servant-believers” (Maxwell’s pejorative term throughout the book for those not of his persuasion) who believe that justification means “forgiveness and the adjustment of their legal standing.”[6]

It is also not surprising that all of these writers deny the Seventh-day Adventist sanctuary doctrine that God has records of our sins in heaven that are removed through Christ’s atonement. In 1916 Waggoner wrote, “Twenty-five years ago [approximately the very time he abandoned the substitutionary atonement of Christ] . . . , the self-evident truth that sin is not an entity but a condition that can only exist in a person, made it clear to me that it is impossible that there could be such thing as the transferring of sins to the sanctuary in heaven.”[7] As Whidden shows, the logical path from denial of Christ’s substitutionary death leads directly to a denial of the sanctuary doctrine.

While Jennings correctly notes that the heavenly records are primarily concerned with God’s vindication, he denies that they are related to punishment, acquittal, and erasure in the cleansing of the sanctuary.[8] Similar to Waggoner, he holds that the only cleansing that occurs is “in the hearts and minds of his people,” and that God can save us because we will be “perfectly restored.”[9] Maxwell wrote, “Sin is not something recorded in a book.” He also believed that God wanted to “bring us to the place where he won’t have to forgive us anymore.”[10]

The justice and vengeance of God also will matter a great deal for those who have been persecuted and killed over the centuries. The cry of the martyrs, “How long?” (Rev. 6:10) goes up to God calling for His vengeance. Paul lays out the situation quite clearly to the persecuted believers in Thessalonica:

This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering—since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus (2 Thess. 1:5-8).

In memorable, moving, and beautiful contrast to some of the ideas presented by our friends, Ellen White wrote,

Upon Christ as our substitute and surety was laid the iniquity of us all. He was counted a transgressor, that He might redeem us from the condemnation of the law. The guilt of every descendant of Adam was pressing upon His heart. The wrath of God against sin, the terrible manifestation of His displeasure because of iniquity, filled the soul of His Son with consternation. (DA 753)

By His perfect obedience He has satisfied the claims of the law, and my only hope is found in looking to Him as my substitute and surety, who obeyed the law perfectly for me. By faith in His merits I am free from the condemnation of the law. He clothes me with His righteousness, which answers all the demands of the law. I am complete in Him who brings in everlasting righteousness. He presents me to God in the spotless garment of which no thread was woven by any human agent. All is of Christ, and all the glory, honor, and majesty are to be given to the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world. (1SM 396)



[1]Jennings, The God-Shaped Brain, 147.

[2]See e.g. Lev. 6:13; Ex. 28:38-40; Heb. 7:25; Phil. 3:8-15; 3SM 196.

[3]This is not meant to be a condescendingly disingenuous phrase—I have had several friends and acquaintances that hold to Jennings’ views over the years, and continue to do so today. I value their concern for God’s reputation, though I disagree with their means of defending it.

[4]It is also interesting to note that both Jennings and Waggoner (and perhaps Maxwell as well) hold the view that Christ’s human nature had all of the same sinful tendencies that we have. Waggoner wrote, “The flesh he assumed had all the weaknesses and sinful tendencies to which fallen human nature is subject” (“God Manifest in the Flesh,” Signs of the Times, Jan. 21, 1889). Jennings writes that Jesus had the same “fear and selfishness” that we have, and that He took our “sick condition” (God-Shaped Brain, 167-168). The subject of the human nature of Christ remains a controversial subject in Adventism and deserves treatment in separate article. Suffice it to note here that if Jesus really was selfish by nature, He most certainly would have been a sinner in need of a Savior Himself. Hebrews 7:26-28; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Luke 1:35; and Ellen White’s comments about Jesus “not possessing the passions of our human, fallen natures” nor having “the same sinful, corrupt propensities as man” (16MR 182); that “not for one moment was there in Him an evil propensity,” that He had no “taint of, or inclination to, corruption” (5BC 1128), and that “He was born without a taint of sin” (7BC 925) seem to contradict Jennings’ and Waggoner’s views.

[5]E.J. Waggoner, “Being Justified,” Present Truth, October 20, 1892, quoted in Whidden, 294.

[6]Maxwell, Servants or Friends, 152.

[7]Waggoner, “The Confession of Faith” of Dr. E.J. Waggoner (originally published by Albion F. Ballenger, Document File 236, Ellen White Estate, Loma Linda Branch Office), 16.

[8]Jennings, The God-Shaped Brain, 146-154.

[9]Ibid., 154.

[10]Maxwell, 155-156. This is in contrast to 1 John 1:8, Phil. 3:9-15; Heb. 7:25; SL 7; AA 561; ST May 16, May 23, 1895; which all teach that battles with sin remain until glorification. In addition to this, the latter two articles also teach the reality of heavenly records of sin, the atonement of Christ on the basis of His substitutionary death, and the blotting out of sin in the sanctuary records.

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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.