Perfection. One word–so much power. Power to spur unto growth, and power to discourage and demean. Power to challenge our best yet, and power to make us give up in the face of the unattainable.
“Be perfect, as God is perfect,” says Jesus in Matthew 5:48. Not only is “perfection” a powerful concept in and of itself, but it is also a biblical concept! This seemingly straightforward verse has caused more confusion and more agony than one could imagine. After all, isn’t God’s command clear? How much plainer can the Word get? So, what are we, as Christians, to do with it?
The pursuit of perfection has been a prevalent teaching in the Seventh-day Adventist church for decades and has developed under the umbrella of Last Generation Theology, a recent label which designates a group of theologies teaching that the last generation of Adventists living on earth must reach a sinless perfection of character.
Backed by some biblical texts and Ellen White quotes, the LGT is a problematic theology in several aspects, with direct and major consequences upon one’s spiritual life.
- On one hand, the daily struggle to attain a perfect character is real and can lead to discouragement, self-abasement, and even abandoning a God who asks the impossible.
- On the other hand, pride plies itself so well on the achievement of what is presumed to be the biblical expectation of perfection. Both these effects bind us in a knotty relationship with God that may take a long time to untangle and can even jeopardize our eternal destiny.
Aside from the direct effect on a Christian’s spiritual life, LGT distorts some core biblical doctrines, including the doctrine of Salvation, the doctrine of the Sanctuary, and the doctrine of Eschatology (the study of the last days). It seems important, therefore, to dwell on LGT to some extent, in order to:
- See how it stacks up against the Great Controversy metanarrative of the Bible as understood in Adventism, and
- Check whether we subscribe to one or another of its ideas and whether these are to be further cherished or discarded.
My supposition is that this study will be surprising to many of us, as these ideas have been somewhat influential in shaping our personal views of self, God, and salvation. The study will include five articles, two expounding the core teachings and historical development of LGT, and three counteracting these teachings with biblical doctrine (focusing on the aspects of sin, salvation, justification, and sanctification). This first article introduces the topic by addressing the core teachings of LGT and then exposing the major problems they raise.
Basic Tenets of LGT
While there is a spectrum within LGT, the following seem to be the core teachings of LGT:
1. The Great Controversy is About God’s Character
At some point in the undiscoverable past, Lucifer, a prominent angel of God, accused Him of not being good and loving and stirred up a controversy of cosmic proportions. The entire universe created by God is involved in this controversy, as God Himself, the uncreated creator of everything, is put into the spotlight. Once the accusations have been cast, it is up to God to prove His innocence by demonstrating that His love and goodness are flawless. As Peckham has well stated,
[s]ince the cosmic conflict is a conflict about character, it cannot be settled by force, but only by a demonstration of character that refutes the charges raised against God’s character.[i]
It is important to mention here that no conflict would ever be possible in God’s universe if His creatures did not possess will; a host of machines could not rebel against their Maker. Creatures endowed with the gift of will, however, can choose to love and pledge allegiance to their Creator or to protest His government and dissent. Lucifer was the first to sow discord in a perfect world, and he was eventually cast out of heaven along with his followers.
At its core, free will is the fundamental element of love, for love can only exist and flourish in a context where choice is possible. Thus, the love of God, who chose to endow His creatures with free will, is now being called into question through the creature’s exercise of free will. Such a tangled mess! How will God respond?
2. Humankind Has Fallen
Not only was the cosmos involved in a controversy over God’s character and government, but the dissenting angels also brought the discord into a newly created world. Thus, Adam and Eve, the first humans created by God, were deceived by the Satan and sinned against God by disobeying the command to not eat of the fruit of good and evil–a test meant to prove their allegiance.
Their disobedience changed the condition of the human race and their relationship with their Creator. The human nature, created sinless, became sinful through Adam and Eve’s exercise of free will. They were now united with Satan in rebellion against God. Death was the direct consequence of sin, and the human race was doomed to perish in shame and grief.
3. Jesus Died on the Cross to Save Us from Sin
Alongside mainstream Adventism, LGT affirms that Jesus provided the solution for the problem of sin and death by taking upon Himself the sin, guilt, and shame, and dying on the cross in our place. Thus, He reconciles us with God and gives us a second chance at eternal life in a new, sinless, eternal world.
4. The Last Generation Vindicates God’s Character by Reaching Sinless Perfection
According to Last Generation Theology, while Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross is necessary to redeem us from sin and from the dominion of Satan, it does not provide sufficient grounds for vindicating God’s character before the universe. Thus, His atonement, while indispensable for our salvation, does not solve the great controversy in full.
What is still needed is a generation of people who will reach sinless perfection, proving that obedience to God is possible, and implicitly that His character is flawless. This generation will be the last generation living on earth before Christ’s second coming. Given these views, it would not be improper to speak of two phases of atonement in LGT: Jesus’s death on the cross and a sinless last generation of humans to prove obedience is possible.
As you read through these ideas, you probably resonated well with the first two, which are perfectly in line with Adventist theology. The departure point is the understanding of atonement and what Jesus accomplished (or did not accomplish) at the cross, with ramifications into our understanding of justification and sanctification, and generally the role of humans in salvation and the settling of the great controversy.
The last point, tightly interconnected with the third, delineates even more clearly the defining belief of LGT. You may have already begun to grasp some of the issues with this theology, so let’s go over some of the most problematic implications, mainly as exposed by John Peckham’s “Great Controversy Issues” in God’s Character and the Last Generation.
Implications of LGT
1. Jesus’s Atonement is Insufficient
If Jesus’s atonement is not sufficient to settle the Great Controversy, then His death is not truly necessary. This is congruent with the idea of a sinless generation of humans. In other words, if humans can become sinless by obedience to the law, what need is there for the Cross?
2. Satan was not Defeated at the Cross
If the cross does not provide sufficient grounds to either save us from sin or demonstrate God’s character before the universe, then Satan was not defeated at the cross. For his final defeat, human beings must prove perfect obedience is possible.
3. Jesus Inherited Sinful Inclinations
If our goal is to be like Jesus, and if the expectation is that we achieve the sinlessness Jesus exemplified during His ministry on Earth, then Jesus must have inherited the sinful human inclinations. To claim otherwise would be to cast shadows on God’s fairness in expecting more from us that Jesus Himself was capable of.
Thus, working backward from the premise that we must reach sinless perfection, LGT inevitably ascribes Jesus a sinful human nature. The major problem with this is that, if “sin is a condition that requires salvation from outside and Christ inherited this condition, then it seems that He would Himself be in need of a Savior”[ii]–an implication impossible to reconcile with the biblical narrative of redemption.
4. Humans Contribute Significantly to the Great Controversy Victory
It is evident that on the LGT view, victory over sin does not belong to God alone, but also to humans, who are called to play a part in the defense of God and defeat of Satan before the cosmos. This weakens the role of God and the ministry of Jesus while elevating human beings. As Peckham well put it,
LGT makes God’s victory in the great controversy dependent upon the fidelity of mere creatures, thus requiring the view that divine revelation and action are insufficient to win the great controversy but must be supplemented by human action.[iii]
5. Sinlessness is Possible Before Glorification
If human beings are to achieve sinlessness before Christ’s return, then sinlessness is possible before glorification – an implication certainly problematic for those of us who understand glorification to be the gift of Christ to humankind, made possible through Christ’s sacrifice and our mere acceptance of it.
In fact, in LGT, the sinlessness of the last generation is a prerequisite for Christ’s return. Thus, the order of salvation and glorification is changed and the human role is elevated.
6. Sin, Understood as Action, can be Fully Overcome
The LGT view regarding the import of the last generation sinlessness also implies a problematic view of sin. Again, Peckham elucidates the issues very eloquently:
If sin is thought of only as actions that are freely chosen, then one might become sinless by the force of one’s free will. If, however, sin is … also a bent disposition of the human condition with unchosen propensities towards evil, then it seems humans would not be able to perfectly overcome sin by the force of their will because the human will would itself be infected by sin.[iv]
The view of LGT is certainly not in line with either Adventist theology, nor with centuries of Christian theology, who has understood sin primarily as an inherent proclivity of the fallen human nature. Most importantly, the Bible includes a host of passages that support a broader view of sin than mere actions.
The LGT’s optimistic view of human possibilities removes the very root of the problem of sin and deals with the symptoms alone, but treating the symptoms without removing the root can at best produce an appearance of solving the problem.
7. Sanctification Eventually Renders Justification Useless
Adventism generally understands justification and sanctification as two related, yet distinct aspects in the process of salvation. If justification–the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believers who accept His sacrifice–is the legal declaration of the believer’s imputed righteousness, then sanctification is the process by which God transforms the believer to increasingly reflect the perfect character of God–something to be achieved only in glorification, at Christ’s Second Coming.
In LGT, however, the distinction between these two aspects is blurred. In contrast with the mainstream view of character perfection, where sanctification is the work of God on us, LGT promotes the idea of sinless perfectionism–a spiritual place the believer arrives at through obedience, and which, once reached, practically makes Christ’s justification needless since the believer can stand before God in his own sinless perfection.
8. Excessive Emphasis on External Obedience
Naturally deriving from the LGT view of salvation, sanctification, and justification is a Christian lifestyle focused primarily on actions. If the process of reaching perfection is one of obedience to the laws of God, and if sin is understood as action, then external behavior is the primary concern of LGT, in contrast with mainstream Adventism, wherein sin is more than action and extends into the core of the human inclination in a way that we can never overcome fully while on this earth. Thus, for LGT, the focus is automatically on external behavior as evidence of obedience.
9. Struggling Between Guilt and Doubt
The focus on behavior and the expectation to be like Jesus in character can take such a toll on believers as to severely mess with them emotionally, spiritually, and even physically. Failure alone can be the outcome of such stringent self-demands, and heaven may just count a few souls less because of this stern doctrine and its inevitable effects.
Instead of focusing on God and the gift of salvation, on the power of Christ’s sacrifice, and on the grace and guidance of the Holy Spirit by which we grow as Christian believers, LGT fosters guilt, shame, and ultimately doubt in either God’s goodness (in asking what is not possible to us as sinful beings), or His ability to change us.
As mentioned earlier, another danger of this focus on the external is the pride of perfection, which can lead people to place themselves above others, assuming they are better than those around since their behavior appears to point that way.
However, proper behavior, by whatever standards we choose (and this is a complex issue in itself), can hide hideous sins and souls that linger in darkness even while public actions infer a connection with the God of light. A judgmental attitude naturally follows, with damaging effects on both the judge and the judged. Thus, LGT can push believers to either the depths of despair or the pride of privilege.
10. Christ’s Return Depends on the Last Generation Reaching Perfection
While some Bible passages and Ellen White writings indicate some level of conditionality regarding Christ’s return, these have to do primarily (if not solely) with mission and spreading the Gospel to the end of the earth. LGT, however, advocates a conditionality that makes human sinlessness a prerequisite for Jesus’s return.
In their view, “Christ has not returned yet because He is waiting for this group to provide sufficient grounds to close the great controversy.”[v] Once again, humans are elevated to play a greater role in the plan of salvation and the settling of the Great Controversy than the biblical narrative seems to indicate.
Some of these ideas may be old to you, others new. After this brief exposition, you may find yourself in a paradoxical place, recognizing that you hold onto some LGT teachings, but feeling confused about their implications, to which you don’t subscribe.
I hope that the remaining articles in this series will help clarify the issue better, and, most importantly, provide a biblical picture of sin, salvation, sanctification, and what God expects from the last generation.
Before we delve into that, we will next explore how Adventists ended up believing this. No teaching, especially with one such major implications, develops in a vacuum or suddenly. Indeed, historical records show that LGT has gradually developed over time, and this will be the focus of my next article in which I will look at the main proponents, the context in which they worked, and how these views took shape and were accepted into Adventism.
[i] John Peckham, “Great Controversy Issues,” in God’s Character and the Last Generation, edited by Jiri Moskala and John Peckham, (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2018), p. 15.
[ii] Ibid., p. 18.
[iii] Ibid., p. 17.
[iv] Ibid., p. 17.
[v] Ibid., p. 20.