October 17, 2012

The Incomplete Gospel

A history professor lecturing on the life and contributions of George Washington may point to many things. For one, Washington was a Virginian, a Southerner at heart. He worked in the tobacco industry for much of his life. He owned more than 135 slaves when he declared with the other signers of the Declaration for the God-given rights of  “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and 277 slaves when he died. He owned the famed Mount Vernon estate on the banks of the Potomac. He fought with British colonial forces in the French and Indian War, and is most renowned for his role in the American Revolution, successfully leading the Continental Army to victory over the British.

This is where the professor ends. Final exams are given: the class is over. Already you should be seeing a problem in this scenario. Everything the professor said about Washington was true. But was he missing something? What about the fact that George Washington was the first president of the United States, a man whose moral choices and public probity have been celebrated for more than two centuries? A college course claiming to survey the life of George Washington would be remiss if it excluded the significance of his presidency.

Is something similar happening within the church? Could we be doing the same thing to Jesus Christ that our hypothetical professor did to George Washington?

Searching for the Center
It is not uncommon to hear Adventist Christians declare that we need to go back to the cross, that the cross is the focal point of the gospel and the Bible. It is also not terribly uncommon to hear fellow believers remark that we ought to “back off ” from our distinctive doctrines, such as the sanctuary and the investigative judgment, because these teachings tend to alienate our non-Adventist Christian friends and colleagues whom we wish to bring into the church.

2012 1529 page22Some years ago I worked with a colleague with whom I enjoyed many theological, philosophical, and political conversations. He was not an Adventist, but he was an avid student of history as well as the Bible. One day he remarked that the problem with the Adventist Church was that it tried to “go beyond” the cross, when in reality salvation began and ended at the cross!

Was he right? And do those who suggest that we should back off from the sanctuary truth have a point?
Though I can appreciate their concern for a portable and uncluttered gospel, let me suggest that these individuals are missing the bigger picture. If we are focusing on the cross to the exclusion of the sanctuary, are we really preaching the whole gospel?

Though I should be careful how I say this, the simple answer is: no.

In God’s plan of salvation, the role of the cross is vital, irreplaceable, and integral, but it is not exclusive. I’ll be bolder still: Salvation does not end at the cross!

Sanctuary Lessons
The sanctuary that God instructed Moses to build was prophetic of His plan of salvation. In essence, it was God using props to show fallen humanity just how He intended to save them from their sins.

If the high priest entered the Most Holy Place on the Day of Atonement without blood, there could be no remission of sin—thus the necessity of sacrifice. Hebrews 9:22 confirms that without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sin. Likewise, despite daily sacrifices, if the priest never applied this blood onto the sacred veil of the Holy of Holies, there could be no remission of sin. The blood of the sacrifice and the priestly mediation on the Day of Atonement were inseparable.

The Bible is clear when it says: “But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:11, 12).* Without the blood of the sacrifice, the work accomplished in the sanctuary would be a vain hope and wishful thinking. However, without the fuller understanding of the work accomplished in the sanctuary, what happened at Calvary would be little more than a moving story of another murdered prophet. The two understandings are mutually dependent.

The danger—dare I call it that—in preaching only the cross is that the cross is not incorrect. Rather, it is incomplete.

Let’s return to the analogy of George Washington. Picturing Washington as president of a sovereign nation in 1776, before he ever came to office, would be utterly foolish. Likewise, not describing Washington’s contribution as president in 1800, after he had served two four-year terms, would be equally foolish. There was a time that Washington’s role of president had not yet become a reality; there was, therefore, no need to talk about it. But when he assumed and inhabited the role of president of the United States, one would have been a fool not to acknowledge him as such.

The same may be said of  Christ. Prior to 1844 the message of the cross—the vital, central, focal point—was the crucial thing. It was the message for that appointed time. However, with the giving of the first angel’s message in Revelation 14:7, the people of God are instructed to “fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment has come.” The hour of judgment, the antitypical day of atonement, had finally come. It was (and is) now time to recognize the priestly role of Jesus Christ as He applies His own blood (His role at Calvary) within the Most Holy Place (His role in the sanctuary) on behalf of sinners.

In summary, the cross empowers the sanctuary, and the sanctuary emboldens the cross. The two are inseparable. Remove either, and you have an incomplete gospel. Put them together, and you find the beautiful plan of salvation that God has put into action to save humanity!

Sadly, there are still Adventists who adamantly oppose the sanctuary message. In Daniel the abomination of desolation is described as defiling the sanctuary, and later referred to by Christ in Matthew 24. As Adventists we believe this to be the centuries-long institution of a human priesthood that replaced the priesthood of Christ. The message of Christ’s ministry in the heavenly sanctuary should not be seen as antiquated, or as an artifact of Adventist history. I believe it still is highly relevant and holds a powerful application for the twenty-first century.

Here is the point. Seventh-day Adventists who regard the sanctuary as inconsequential to salvation may be inadvertently reaffirming the very “abomination” they claim to oppose. The human priesthood, set up by the apostate church, obscured Christ as the sole mediator and intercessor between God and man. The same principle is still in effect when we downplay or ignore the role of Christ in the Most Holy Place today.

Lessons From Some Wise Men
Long before 1844 and the sounding of the first angel’s message, and years before Christ went to the cross, the message of His priestly ministry was hinted at in the circumstances of His infancy. When the Wise Men from the East came to Bethlehem to see the child, they brought gifts. Matthew 2:11 says: “They presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” While He was still in the manger, these gifts beautifully anticipated the three roles of Jesus Christ.

2012 1529 page22The gold announces His kingship, anticipating how He would be the one to break the bondage of His people and be their king. The frankincense, a common form of incense, was often burned in the sanctuary by the priests, and denotes Christ’s high-priestly ministry that He would undertake upon His return to heaven. Lastly, the myrrh, an expensive spice used for anointing the dead, foreshadows His death upon the cross of Calvary as the sacrificial Lamb.

Maybe we’ve been focusing on one of these gifts at the expense of the others. Perhaps we’ve focused on the myrrh (Jesus’ sacrifice) at the expense of the frankincense (Jesus’ priestly mediation). It must be said clearly: It is also possible to overreact and focus on the sanctuary at the expense of the cross. The key point is to keep all three in mind, because all three aspects of the plan of salvation are embodied in Christ.

The cross needs the sanctuary, and the sanctuary needs the cross. The cross is not the heart of the Bible; the sanctuary is not the heart of the Bible. Jesus Christ is at the heart of Scripture—in all His roles, in all His accomplishments.

Three seemingly insignificant gifts each offered a glimpse of Jesus Christ, the heart of the Bible. Individually they each tell a unique story of Christ. Put them together, and you begin to see the big picture, the everlasting gospel in its undiluted entirety.

Paul quotes the prophets when he proclaims: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor. 2:9).

Surely our Lord is too big and great to confine Him to simply one role or space in time.  Paul reminds us that “by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist” (Col. 1:16, 17). Let’s acknowledge Him and praise Him for all that He has done—and is still doing! 

And yes, His riches truly are “unsearchable” (Eph. 3:8). 

* All Scripture quotations have been taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Andrew W. Kerbs is a college student from Hendersonville, North Carolina. This article was published October 18, 2012.