Good News for Seventh-Day Adventists

Ellet Joseph Waggoner:
The Myth and the Man
David P. McMahon

The Early Waggoner: 1887

E. J. Waggoner had not fully recovered the Protestant message of justification by faith by 1886. Much less had he recovered Paul's message of justification, which is eschatological as well as forensic. It may come as a shock to learn that although Waggoner believed in justification by faith alone, he taught that eternal life and salvation were based on successful lawkeeping—with God's help of course. If this primitive view of soteriology was light for Adventism, how great must have been the legal darkness! If God used Waggoner to bring light on the gospel to the church, then God was not shining the full blaze of even the imperfect Reformation light on the Adventist community.

Those who compare Waggoner's early gropings after the gospel with the clear doctrine of justification propounded by the best nineteenth-century Protestant scholars will be startled. They will be especially disturbed if they think this special "remnant" community had light on the gospel far in advance of "poor Babylonian Protestants."

In 1866 James Buchanan delivered a series of lectures on The Doctrine of Justification: An Outline of Its History in the Church and of Its Exposition from Scripture. Published in 1867, it remains one of the finest works on the subject written at any time or in any language. It makes Waggoner's presentation appear feebly immature. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, that prince of preachers, also knew how to divide law and gospel, justification and sanctification, grace and glory with masterful skill.

The little "remnant" had no great theologians or teachers like Buchanan, Spurgeon or Hodge. And until they could grow to mature New Testament faith, they would necessarily remain in comparative obscurity.

The idea that Waggoner had a message of righteousness by faith far in advance of the Reformers or Wesley would be amusing if it were not such a serious aberration. It betrays an Adventist triumphalism nourished on ignorance and isolationism. Unless we are willing to honestly look at our history and our actual gospel performance, we will live in a self-made "fool's paradise."
Until we know what grace is, we cannot endure to see ourselves as we actually are. Unless we believe in divine election, we cannot face the truth of our collective history. But honestly facing our miserable attempts to articulate the gospel should not cause us to lose faith in God's calling of the Advent movement. Election is not based on denominational goodness.

Waggoner was one of Adventism's greatest gospel preachers. But he did not compare with the great Protestant preachers of his time. When the early Adventists debated other religionists, they never engaged the great Westminster or Princeton scholars. They argued with Campbellites and those whose ideas on law and grace were so confused that Adventist teachers appeared bright by comparison. Seventh-day Adventism has never made any impact on the mainstream of the Christian church. And until Adventism matures in the New Testament faith, it never will.

E. J. Waggoner saw himself as only beginning to recover the faith which so mightily stirred the sixteenth century. On the relationship of the law and the gospel in the book of Galatians, he declared:

    If our people should today, as a body (as they will sometime), change their view on this point, it would simply be an acknowledgment that they are better informed today than they were yesterday. It would simply be taking an advance step, which is never humiliating except to those whose pride of opinion will not allow them to admit that they can be wrong. It would simply be a step nearer the faith of the great Reformers from the days of Paul to the days of Luther and Wesley. It would be a step closer to the heart of the Third Angel's Message. I do not regard this view which I hold as a new idea at all. It is not a new theory of doctrine. Everything that I have taught is perfectly in harmony with the fundamental principles of truth which have been held not only by our people, but by all the eminent reformers. And so I do not take any credit to myself for advancing it. All I claim for the theory is, that it is consistent, because it sticks to the fundamental principles of the gospel. (1)
As late as 1900 Waggoner could still say:
    The Epistle to the Galatians, together with its companion, the Epistle to the Romans, was the source, through the Spirit, of the Reformation of the sixteenth century, the key-note of which was, "The just shall live by faith." The reformation then begun is not yet complete, and the same watchword needs to be sounded now as then. If the people of God will become filled with the truth so vividly set forth in this epistle, both the church and the world will be stirred as profoundly as in the days of Luther. May this speedily be the case, and thus the times of restoration of all things be hastened! (2)
Standing in the Judgment

When Paul presents his message of justification by faith, he presents it as an eschatological message in an eschatological setting. In Romans 1-3 he arraigns his hearers to the reality of the last great judgment and demands that they find a righteousness which will stand in the judgment of God. Only when men possess a righteousness by which they can stand fearlessly before God's face may they know that they possess no counterfeit righteousness.

It is in this context of standing in the final judgment that Paul presents his mighty, liberating truth of justification by faith. Justification is clearly defined as the verdict of the day of judgment (Rom. 2:13, 16). A man must be certain of this. Otherwise he is never free. A mere preliminary justification, a justification which falls short of God's ultimate verdict, will never free a man to live joyfully for God.

Paul declares that we have the verdict of the final judgment in the now by faith on the basis of God's righteousness, His saving action in Jesus Christ. Likewise, John declares that we have eternal life—literally, the life of the age to come—in the now by faith (cf. Rom. 3:24-26; John 5:24). Because of this the believer can hasten toward the great day of judgment, crying in eager anticipation, "0 happy judgment day!" Such a faith will nerve a man to face anything (Rom. 8:30-39).

Although the Reformers recovered the judicial or forensic understanding of justification in Paul, they did not recover the glory of its eschatological meaning. In the Advent movement God restored the eschatological setting for the gospel (Rev. 14:6, 7). Here were a people who believed they faced the judgment—a judgment which demanded a righteousness of them which could stand before the face of God. The Adventist concepts of judgment, law and day of atonement provide a marvelous eschatological framework for preaching the gospel.
No one really understands the gospel until he can answer the question, On what basis is a man accepted in the final judgment? One who relegates justification merely to Christian initiation may talk of justification by Christ's imputed righteousness. But what has he gained if he then turns to an eschatological salvation by an indwelling righteousness. He has simply begun as a Protestant and ended as a Roman Catholic. And who could be sure he was ready for the judgment if the verdict of acquittal depended on the measure of his sanctification?

On February 10, 1887, Waggoner addressed the question of how a man is accepted in the judgment. He began by stating the certainty of the judgment. The law is the standard. It will demand nothing less than a righteousness commensurate with the righteousness of God. Said Waggoner:

    If we are ever at a loss to know how perfect the law requires us to be, we have only to consider the life and character of Jesus. He "did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth." This was simply because the law was in his heart. Anyone who models his life in accordance with the law of God, will be just like Christ, and the law will be satisfied with nothing less.

    This righteousness cannot be attained by our own individual effort. Of ourselves we can do nothing; but Christ, who knew no sin, was made to be sin for us, in order "that we might be made the righteousness of God in him." And so the command to know that God will bring us into judgment for every secret thing, includes the command not only to know that the law of God is to be the standard of that judgment, but also that through Christ alone can we attain to that perfect righteousness which the law demands. If Christ dwells in our hearts by faith, then we can exhibit in our actions the righteousness of the law, for if we have Christ in the heart we must have the law there also. And having lived thus, when we are brought before the judgment-seat, and God fixes upon us his piercing gaze, he will see, not us, but the image of Christ, and because he lives we shall live also. (3)

This statement by Waggoner is disappointing. But let us not be too harsh on one who ranks among Adventism's most brilliant exponents of the gospel. His teaching on a believer's acceptance in the judgment was contrary to justification by faith. But the principles he was advocating on the law and the gospel would have eventually corrected that misunderstanding. The great Reformation historian, Philip Schaff, once said that Luther understood justification by faith in his heart long before he could clearly articulate it. (4) When the young Reformer was shaking Europe with the gospel, he believed in prayers for the dead, the mass, "good" indulgences and the authority of the pope, and could still enunciate only an Augustinian view of justification by faith. (5) But the early Luther possessed the ingredients which were to explode his own errors and break the stranglehold of the papacy. Likewise, Waggoner's light on the law and the gospel contained the vital ingredients to explode his own errors and to lighten the earth with the glory of God.


1. E. J. Waggoner, The Gospel in the Book of Galatians: A Review, p. 70.
2. E. J. Waggoner, The Glad Tidings, 1900 ed., p. 5. Waggoner's prefatory remarks do not appear in the 1972 edition revised by R. J. Wieland.
3. E. J. Waggoner, "Things We Should Know," no. 2, Signs of the Times, 10 Feb. 1887, p. 86.
4. "He [Luther] was gradually brought to the conviction that the sinner is justified by faith alone, without works of law. He experienced this truth in his heart long before he understood it in all its bearings" (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 7:122).
5. In its essence Augustine's conception of salvation is the "renewal of man by grace which enables him to become righteous by doing good works in love, for man is justified by faith which works through love. The emphasis is on love, which is the actual content of justification" (Uuras Saarnivaara, Luther Discovers the Gospel, p. 17). For a detailed discussion of Augustine's conception of the sinner's salvation and its relation to Luther's mature teaching on justification, see pp. 3-18.

SDA Home Page   Article List   Next Article