T WAS IN THE EARLY 1990S WHEN I FIRST remember hearing the issue discussed. I was in college at the time, partway through my theology degree, and two Adventist friends of mine were passionately debating the most effective way to reach non-Christians with the gospel. After 20 minutes of discussion, one friend declared with great enthusiasm, “Revelation seminars are worthless! People don’t need Adventist doctrine. They need JESUS!” Whereupon the debate came to an abrupt halt, as the gathered crowd—including me—unanimously nodded their heads in agreement.
And why not? The logic seemed sound. After all, who could disagree with the notion that what people really need in this world of sin and woe is Jesus? To say otherwise would almost certainly brand one as a legalist, and it would be in apparent contradiction with the clear words of Scripture: “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
But the clinching arguments that made our heads nod in agreement were the “stories.” Each of us had heard of non-Adventists being grossly offended by Adventist evangelists presenting topics such as the Sabbath or—most offensive of all—the mark of the beast. What a mess! we thought—a mess we wanted to avoid. Thus, for us, preaching about Christ supplanted the teaching of Adventist doctrine, and happily so.
More than a decade later, the Jesus-versus-doctrine debate continues. But increasingly it seems that the doctrine side has decidedly lost the argument in favor of preaching “Christ and Christ alone.” Many see unique Adventist doctrines as being, at best, quaint aberrations to be quietly tolerated or, â€¨at worst, divisive wedges to be assiduously hidden from the outside world. And many an Adventist school, church, or medical institution wrestle with how to deal with the risk of being truly Adventist in an increasingly pluralistic world.
But in the midst of all the clamor to deal appropriately with our unique teachings, could it be that something is missing from our logic? I think so. In fact, were that college conversation to take place again today, I would no longer nod my head in agreement, but instead would enthusiastically support an entirely different point of view.
The reason for my change of heart is due to the unmasking of three faulty assumptions that used to undergird my thinking:
Faulty Assumption 1: Jesus is inherently inoffensive.
When I hear proponents of the only-Jesus-no-doctrine approach, I can sympathize with their sentiment. There is simply no denying the fact that in 150-plus years of Adventism our evangelists and pastors (and countless laypeople, for that matter) have offended, angered, and enraged countless thousands of people by preaching about the Sabbath, the state of the dead, the sanctuary, etc. Even the mere mention of the papacy in a less-than-positive light these days can brand a well-intended Adventist as a bigot faster than you can say “beast out of the sea.”
So why not go with Jesus instead? Why not put our eggs in the Jesus-meek-and-mild basket instead of offending people with doctrine?
Because Jesus was meek, but He wasn’t mild.
Ponder carefully: Jesus Christ, the embodiment and definition of love, spent most of His public ministry with a significant portion of the population absolutely hating Him. The Pharisees, for instance, manically sought to stifle Christ’s teaching, going to extraordinary lengths to do so. Public debates were staged in front of hundreds of people for the specific purpose of discrediting the all-loving, all-merciful Son of God. The smartest, most highly respected religious minds of the day were dispatched to do their level best to grind the “unlearned Galilean” into theological dust. And when all these attempts to silence Jesus failed, His enemies found some spare lumber and pinned Him to it on Calvary until He was dead.
To be blunt, for many people Jesus was—and is—the most offensive, divisive, infuriating man who ever lived. Is He also the most loving, the most merciful, the most redemptive? Emphatically, yes! But the latter does not negate the former (in fact, the former may be true in large part because of the latter). Jesus was and is “a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall” (1 Peter 2:8). He Himself declares, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division” (Luke 12:51). And to believe that somehow if all we preach is “Jesus instead of doctrine” we will automatically be less offensive to people is to fly in the face of clear biblical evidence to the contrary.
Jesus—at least the Jesus portrayed in the Bible—can be intensely offensive because He loves the sinner, but still hates the sin. He accepts all comers, but denies all other gods, insisting that He and He alone is the sole way to salvation. He showers undeserving sinners with incredible love and forgiveness, but still unabashedly commands their undivided loyalty to Him and His agenda. In short, Jesus is offensive because He never affirms our desire to save ourselves. That hurts human pride. And as long as we present the biblical Jesus, He will draw all who are willing to Him—and all who are unwilling might just become foot-stomping mad. Teaching Christ instead of doctrine in the hopes that fewer people will be offended thus becomes a dead-end street.
Faulty Assumption 2: Doctrine is irrelevant to one’s salvation.
Make no mistake: We are not saved by our works, but by the unmerited favor of Jesus Christ our Lord. As Ellen White points out, there is “not one thread of human devising”1 in the robe of Christ’s righteousness that covers our sin and shame. We are lost without Christ’s work on our behalf, and neither our good works nor our good doctrine can buy us a seat in the kingdom.
But this is not to say that doctrine plays no part in one’s salvation. On the contrary, good doctrine cannot help pointing us to salvation, while bad doctrine cannot help pointing us toward destruction.
Doctrine is simply teaching. Teaching by nature conveys information, which in turn helps structure one’s value system and then provides the indispensable basis for making life’s decisions. Bad doctrine thus leads to bad life decisions, while good doctrine leads to good life decisions.
Some years ago I was called to intervene with some young adults who had been playing with a Ouija board. They had gone to a cemetery with the game and had gotten into a demonic encounter that had lasted for nearly a week. All those involved were now being harassed by a demon who they thought was the spirit of a dead man in the cemetery, and one of them was possessed. By the blood of Christ and much prayer God prevailed and the entire group was set free from Satan’s grasp. But they had suffered greatly because of their decisions.
Here’s the question: Could proper doctrine concerning the state of the dead have been helpful to those young adults? Absolutely! In fact, bad doctrine in this area is an extraordinary liability, one that is manifesting itself in ever-increasing fashion even in developed countries. Bad doctrine is thus potentially devastating, and in the case of those Ouija-board-playing young adults, may have proved chillingly relevant to their salvation had God not intervened.
“But wait a minute!” someone might say. “Good doctrine didn’t save those kids—Jesus did!” Quite right—which leads to my third faulty assumption.
Faulty Assumption 3: Doctrine has only a distant relation to Jesus.
Here’s the truth about good doctrine: genuine Christian doctrines—including uniquely Adventist doctrines—are all about Jesus Christ! Christian doctrine is just that: teaching about Christ. The Sabbath, for instance, is a profound reminder of the character and actions of Jesus Christ, not only in creating the world, but also in re-creating and refreshing us daily as we grow in Him.2 The doctrine of soul sleep is not merely an explanation of the nature of human beings, but also a powerful prescription for how best to hear Christ’s voice,3 as well as a warning against imposters (evil spirits, etc.) that may keep us from being with Him. A clear understanding of the mark of the beast is the story of how Jesus will finally bring evil to an end and usher in His kingdom of goodness and light, where we will be with Him—in the flesh—for eternity. Every teaching of the Adventist Church, rightly understood, is centered in and redolent of Jesus Christ. Drawing an antagonistic distinction between Christ and doctrine may not reflect compassion for the lost as much as a lack of understanding of doctrine’s true nature.
In 2001 a dozen other church members and I started a new Adventist church in Washington State. There are endless stories of what happened there, the ups and downs and dramatic turns that God took us on.
Two and a half years after starting with that dozen people we were averaging between 70 and 80 in attendance each Sabbath morning—nearly all of whom had not been previously attending church anywhere. Why did those people come and stay? Obviously, there was a variety of means the Spirit used. But one of the more prominent means was the Sabbath morning sermon/small group discussion time. The topics for those times? Overwhelmingly, Adventist doctrine. Time and again we addressed topics such as the Sabbath, the state of the dead, the mark of the beast, the sanctuary, etc., as windows on Jesus Christ and His amazing love for us. These doctrines were compelling, and the Spirit used them to bring non-Adventists and non-Christians to Himself.4
Do Christ and doctrine seem like diametrically opposed, uncomfortable partners? Or are they a natural pair, like a public speaker and a PA system, the latter simply amplifying the reality of the former?
If an Adventist doctrine seems unpalatable, could it be that it’s time for reevaluation of that doctrine rather than throwing it out altogether? And might it be that Adventist doctrine still has a central and indispensable role to play in evangelism—that is, in bringing our friends and neighbors into the arms of Jesus Christ?
Years ago on that college campus I couldn’t have imagined how this could be the case. But today, I can’t imagine it being otherwise. When it comes to doctrine, it really is all about Jesus!
1Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 311.
2See Hebrews 4:9-11.
3The doctrine of soul sleep forms a key theological basis for the Adventist health message. Humans do not live on after death because they are a unity of body and spirit; when either the body dies or God withdraws the spirit (“the breath of life”), the human ceases to exist. The body and mind are thus inextricably intertwined, the health of one directly impacting the other. To best hear the voice of Christ, we are called to take care of our bodies, that the mind might be maximally receptive to the Spirit’s promptings.
4Other church plants in North America—both contemporary and traditional in their worship styles—have done the same, with similar and even dramatically better results.