Seventh-day Adventist doctrine and theology today is directly influenced by the teaching and experience that grew out of 1888 and the 1890s. Those years have yielded three significant and foundational developments: A new clarity on the role of the Ten Commandments in relation to salvation, reframing the third angel’s message of Revelation 14 in terms of righteousness by faith in Jesus, and a shift toward a biblical Trinitarian understanding.
“Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster” (Gal. 3:24, 25, KJV). This text launched the new emphasis on righteousness by faith for the Seventh-day Adventist Church leading up to the 1888 Minneapolis, Minnesota, General Conference session. It had been controversial through much of the history of the church. The fundamental question was whether the law referred to was the Ten Commandments or was it the system of sacrifices and ceremonies connected to the earthly sanctuary service?
An important point for this discussion is that righteousness by faith was not a new idea in 1888. During the early 1850s Adventist leaders such as James White and J. N. Andrews had taught that the moral law pointed us to Jesus. In an 1851 tract Andrews wrote: “How is the law a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ? Answer. The law shows our guilt and just condemnation, and that we are lost without a Savior.”1 A year later James White wrote: “Those who represent Sabbathkeepers as going away from Jesus, the only source of justification, and rejecting His atoning blood, and seeking justification by the law, do it either ignorantly or wickedly.”2
But J. H. Waggoner’s 1854 tract shows that the matter continued to require address. He admonished readers that “if it were even possible for them to keep [the law], it would lead them to trust in themselves, and seek for justification by personal obedience, instead of seeking to the Savior for it.”3
Waggoner unfortunately took an additional step and excluded the ceremonial law from Galatians. “Respecting [the] letter to the Galatians,” he wrote, “not a single declaration has been found therein which can be referred to the ceremonial or Levitical law.”4 This was awkward for Seventh-day Adventist ministers who, in debate with other Protestant ministers, had argued that the ceremonial, and not the moral law, was a shadow that pointed us to Christ.
Waggoner’s book was withdrawn, and the position in print over the next 30 years presented the ceremonial law as the schoolmaster to bring us to Christ. The conflict grew during the mid-1880s when Waggoner’s son E. J. Waggoner presented in the Signs of the Times that the law in Galatians 3:24, 25 was the moral law. Church leaders G. I. Butler and Uriah Smith saw this as an attempt to revive an old argument that had been debunked.
Tragically, many in the church were legalistic in their approach to the Ten Commandments. Ellen White would write in 1890: “As a people, we have preached the law until we are as dry as the hills of Gilboa that had neither dew nor rain.”5 Waggoner, like his father, presented the gospel in relation to the Ten Commandments. The law condemns us, and drives us to Jesus as the only Savior who can forgive our sins.
The surface issue in 1888 was the law in Galatians. But the real problem was indifference to righteousness by faith. Butler and Waggoner both published tracts with their respective positions on the law in Galatians.6 In his conclusion Waggoner lamented Butler’s reference to “the much vaunted doctrine of justification by faith,” and continued: “[your] theory leads inevitably to the conclusion that men are justified by the law. . . . I conclude that it is impossible to overestimate the doctrine of justification by faith.”7
Ellen White’s response on the law in Galatians eventually bridged the two views: “ ‘What law is the schoolmaster to bring us to Christ?’ I answer: Both the ceremonial and the moral code of the Ten Commandments. Christ was the foundation of the whole Jewish economy.”8
In the end, Adventists accepted that the law represented in Galatians was both the moral and ceremonial law, with a particular relevance for the moral law.
The new emphasis on Jesus and salvation was soon linked to a core theological foundation of the Seventh-day Adventist Church—the third angel’s message. “Here is the patience of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus” (Rev. 14:12, KJV).
Early Adventists understood the “faith of Jesus” as something that needed to be kept. It was descriptive of Jesus’ faith that we emulate. It included “the New Testament requirements, such as repentance, faith, baptism, Lord’s Supper, washing the saints’ feet, etc.” that Jesus practiced.9 This position countered those in the Protestant world who considered those requirements to be the “commandments of God.” By identifying them as the “faith of Jesus,” Adventists distinguished and preserved the perennial imperatives of the Ten Commandments and the Sabbath. Waggoner and Jones’ interpretation seemed to some to be supporting the anti-Sabbatarian Protestant position.
Ellen White recognized that Adventists’ original interpretation had weakened the living power of the gospel when she wrote: “The commandments of God have been proclaimed, but the faith of Jesus has not been proclaimed by Seventh-day Adventists as of equal importance, the law and the gospel going hand in hand.”10
Waggoner and Jones constantly emphasized the “faith of Jesus” in the third angel’s message. A. T. Jones titled his lengthy series of sermons in the General Conference Bulletin of 1893 and 1895, “The Third Angel’s Message.” A careful reading reveals that much of the presentation was focused on the “faith of Jesus” in Revelation 14:12. He interpreted it as an active and living experience with Jesus. Just before a praise meeting he said, “ ‘Justified by faith’ . . . we shall see the whole law of God written in the heart and shining in the life, and the words: ‘Here are they that keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.’ All . . . is reflected and shines in Jesus Christ.”11 Ellen White emphatically supported the gospel connection to the “faith of Jesus,” writing, “It is the third angel’s message in verity.”12
This critical development made the gospel the heart of the third angel’s message. It placed the law of God in a correct relationship to a living faith in Jesus. The three angels of Revelation 14 are framed with the gospel. They begin with the “everlasting gospel” to the entire world and end with the “faith of Jesus.”
Up to the 1890s most Seventh-day Adventists were anti-Trinitarian. They viewed God the Father as God in every way, the Son as divine but begotten and having a beginning, and the Holy Spirit reduced to merely a manifestation of either the Father or the Son. Today we have a biblical doctrine of the Godhead in part because of the emphasis on Jesus and the plan of salvation as presented after 1888.
During the 1890s Jones played an important role in presenting the eternal deity of Jesus. During his 1895 series on the third angel’s message, he returned repeatedly to Colossians 2:9. Christ was the “fullness of the Godhead bodily.” “The eternal Word consented to be made flesh. God became man.”13 Two days later, speaking of Christ, Jones said: “In view of eternity before and eternity after, thirty-three years is not such an infinite sacrifice after all. But when we consider that he sank his nature in our human nature to all eternity—that is a sacrifice.”14
In 1899, as editor of the Review and Herald, he wrote of the Godhead in a Trinitarian way: “God is one. Jesus Christ is one. The Holy Sprit is one. And these three are one: there is no dissent nor division among them.”15 Though Jones gave particular emphasis to the eternity of Jesus, Ellen White is probably the first to point to Jesus’ eternity. During the 1870s she described Jesus as the “eternal Son of God.”16 During the 1890s she would write some of the clearest statements on the Godhead and divine nature of Jesus. In 1898 she wrote, “In Christ is life, original, unborrowed, underived.”17 She also affirmed the personhood and divinity of the Holy Spirit who was “the Third Person of the Godhead, who would come with no modified energy, but in the fullness of divine power.”18
We can be grateful for each of these important doctrinal developments that are now part of Seventh-day Adventist faith. As a result of careful Bible study, through the leadership of Waggoner, Jones, and White, we rediscovered the emphasis on righteousness by faith during the 1890s. As God’s commandment-keeping remnant we cherish the role of the law in both showing us our sin and pointing us to Jesus as our only Savior. As bearers to the whole world of God’s truth for these last days, we commit to sharing the three angels’ messages as a proclamation of the gospel in light of the Sabbath, sanctuary, and soon coming of Jesus. And as we worship Him who made heaven and earth, and the sea and the fountains of waters, I pray that this adoration may be representative of the God whose love and character are revealed in a biblical understanding of the Trinity.