Baker Book House has just released a new book by Geoffrey J. Paxton called The Shaking of Adventism. Paxton's book has already brought some comments from the evangelical press (see editorials in the February and March issues of Eternity). (Here is the link to the audio version).
Adventists in increasing numbers have been reading Present Truth Magazine. We do feel that there is real profit in all Christians becoming involved in the theological issues raised in Paxton's book. Let us explain:
In this issue of Present Truth Magazine we conclude our series of articles on "Righteousness by Faith." Using Paul and the Reformers, we have argued this one central thesis: righteousness by faith and sanctification must be distinguished but never separated. All errors on the doctrines of salvation and Christian experience spring from confusion at this point. Everything Protestantism has ever stood for in its battle with Romanism stands or falls right here.
There are those who feel that perhaps we look too much over our shoulder at the issues of the Reformation. Do not such things as the nature and timing of Luther's breakthrough into real Reformation theology belong to the musty tomes of academia? What relevance can these nice theological distinctions have for the real, down-to-earth problems of the modern church?
In his new book, Paxton answers these questions by presenting us with a classic case study, a sort of Reformation struggle redivivus. He tells the almost unbelievable story of a tremendous struggle now going on in the camp of the Adventists over the Reformation doctrine of justification. On either side of this righteousness by faith debate the arguments being used are the arguments of the sixteenth century all over again.
The lesson which Paxton highlights in The Shaking of Adventism (here is the link to the audio version) must not be lost on evangelicals. It is not a matter of being complacently amused over the Adventists' predicament. If this conflict over righteousness by faith is a disease, then evangelicals everywhere need to catch it too. Let us illustrate what we mean:
In response to our current series of articles on "Righteousness by Faith," we received the following letter from an Episcopalian bishop:
I have read the December issue of Present Truth Magazine and the article, "Righteousness by Faith" (Part 3). What a glorious presentation of justification by faith! I thank God for you gentlemen who are clearing away the cobwebs that have gathered around this glorious doctrine.
Having been brought up in a "holiness" background, I was fuzzy about justification and sought "entire sanctification," which only brought me confusion and disappointment. In college I began to read the Reformers and found that much of what is taught in Christian schools is not what the Reformers taught. I had to go back and unlearn so much that it was a traumatic experience. But I thank God that my standing before Him is because of Christ's righteousness imputed to me. What ground for adoration and worship of the Almighty God of heaven! It lays us in the dust with tongues that are wonderfully speechless.
I believe that God has raised you up to cleanse the temple of His Body from the unclean doctrine that abounds. Don't give up the fight, because we need you. For without this clear doctrine of justification by faith, we will be back at the feet of Rome doing penance for having departed 500 years ago.
M. Dean Stephens, Episcopalian Bishop
The bishop is really saying that his church needs to rediscover justification by faith just as much as do the Adventists.
A few years ago I was talking to one of the leading scholars at Fuller Theological Seminary. He was a very knowledgeable man, so I asked him, "What is the best contemporary work on the subject of righteousness by faith?" He recommended Ziesler's The Meaning of Righteousness in Paul, a recent Cambridge monograph. Ziesler's book is very scholarly and has many excellent things in it. But his basic thesis is this: when Paul talks about righteousness by faith, he means sanctification. That, as Ziesler suggests, forms a bridge from Protestantism to Romanism. Of course, Ziesler is not alone in mingling the inward work of sanctification with the Pauline article of righteousness by faith. As we have already pointed out in our current series on the subject, such eminent scholars as C. H. Dodd, Vincent Taylor, James Stewart, Karl Holl, E. Schlink, W. Dantine, H. G. Pohlmann, Ernst Kasemann and many others also do the same.
Leaving the scholars, we look at popular-level evangelicalism, and what do we find? Hardly a breath of the New Testament doctrine of justification by an imputed righteousness. Instead, there is an overwhelming preoccupation with the inner life—new-birth experience as if that in itself were the gospel, victory-life piety, inner peace, inner healing, exciting discovery of the Spirit-filled life—in short, religion that rarely gets any higher than gazing at one's own spiritual navel.
If we do not come to our senses, we might just as well all pack up and head back to Rome, because the religion described above is exactly what medieval spirituality stands for. Luther said that darkness and ignorance of God all stem from a failure to grasp the truth of justification by faith.
Paxton believes that what is now taking place in the Adventist community is a microcosm of what is about to take place in the whole Christian church. The very worst thing that could happen is for Adventists to have the "luxury" of settling this controversy in a private corner. It is a matter which concerns all Christians. Other Christians can help their Adventist brothers by becoming involved with them in the struggle to come fully into the light of justification by faith alone.
Of course, there may be some embarrassing consequences as we allow the truth of justification by faith alone to call all that we do and teach into serious and radical question. But if by the grace of God we are courageous enough to let the truth do this to us, might not a new Reformation become a reality in our day.