Is every individual and every church, living at the risk of failure? Do God’s promises give us such an assurance of salvation that no matter what—we are predestined to life eternal? Are there certain promises given to certain individuals and certain churches that are absolutely unconditional? That no matter what they do, they are predestined to eventually triumph? The Jews believed that they had just such a promise. They believed that in spite of their mistakes, the following verse proved that they would eventually triumph: “Thus saith the Lord, which giveth the sun for a light by day, and the ordinances of the moon and of the stars for a light by night, which divideth the sea when the waves thereof roar; The Lord of hosts is his name: If those ordinances depart from before me, saith the Lord, then the seed of Israel also shall cease from being a nation before me for ever. Thus saith the Lord; If heaven above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth searched out beneath, I will also cast off all the seed of Israel for all that they have done, saith the Lord.” Jeremiah 31: 35–37.
“You see the sun in the sky,” pointed out Mr. Rabbi. “And do you see the moon and the stars every night?” asked the scribe. “Yes,” said the priest, “We know we’ve made mistakes, but God has promised that whatever we may have done, He will not cast away the children of Israel. You can be sure of that promise every time you see the sun, moon and stars; and hear the waves of the ocean. Because the Word of the Lord is sure.” Then came John the Baptist.
“John declared to the teachers of Israel that their pride, selfishness, and cruelty showed them to be a generation of vipers, a deadly curse to the people, rather than the children of just and obedient Abraham. In view of the light they had received from God, they were even worse than the heathen, to whom they felt so much superior. They had forgotten the rock whence they were hewn, and the hole of the pit from which they had been digged. God was not dependent upon them for the fulfilling of His purpose. As He had called Abraham out from a heathen people, so He could call others to His service. Their hearts might now appear as lifeless as the stones of the desert, but His Spirit could quicken them to do His will, and receive the fulfillment of His promise.” The Desire of Ages, 106, 107. [All emphasis supplied.]
There is a sentence in that paragraph that Seventh-day Adventists would do well to study. “God was not dependent upon them for the fulfilling of His purpose.” I wonder if God is dependent on us today for the fulfilling of His purpose. If we are not willing and obedient could He possibly raise up others to do His service and finish His work? It seems, that today, we need to hear the message of John the Baptist again.
“‘And now also,’ said the prophet, ‘the ax is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.’ Not by its name, but by its fruit, is the value of a tree determined. If the fruit is worthless, the name cannot save the tree from destruction. John declared to the Jews that their standing before God was to be decided by their character and life. Profession was worthless. If their life and character were not in harmony with God’s law, they were not His people.” Ibid.
Did John the Baptist’s teaching set aside the scripture that the rabbis were using to prove that they were unconditionally God’s people? Absolutely not! Rather he gave Jeremiah 31:35–37 its true import. By drawing attention to Jesus as the Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world, he was teaching them how to really be a part of Israel. “And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” Galatians 3:29. It is through Jesus that we receive power to obey God’s law. Obedience was the condition to the promise in Jeremiah 31: 35–37. “The Jews regarded their natural descent from Abraham as giving them a claim to this promise. But they overlooked the conditions which God had specified. Before giving the promise, He had said, ‘I will put My law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be My people . . . For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.’ Jeremiah 31:33, 34.”
Today as then, obedience to God’s law is the condition to being one of Abraham’s children. But today, as then, many are emphasizing the wonderful promises of God without pointing out the conditions to those promises. This false teaching is deceptive, but very effective. Multitudes are reading promises like the one the Jews read in Jeremiah and consoling themselves that in spite of the “little” sins in the church, God is going to take it through. They reason that in this singular instance God has predetermined the triumph of a group of people no matter what, and that because God started and ordained this church that it will always be His. This seems like a hybrid union of “predestination” and “once saved always saved” theology. Understood in its context, it is true that God’s church is going through to glory. However, we must remember that when Jesus, the Prince of Peace, was here, the shaking and sifting got so severe that once it shook out all but eleven men and a few women. ” ‘He that is not with Me,’ said Christ, ‘is against Me.’ It is wholehearted, thoroughly decided men and women who will stand now. Christ sifted His followers again and again, until at one time there remained only eleven and a few faithful women to lay the foundation of the Christian church.” Testimonies, vol. 5, 130. God will not be trifled with. We will be saved in His appointed way or not be saved at all. Let God be true and every man a liar before one of His words fall to the ground.
“Oh,” but someone says, “Today, we have promises to the ‘organized church.’ Those eleven men and few women were not the ‘organized church.’” They weren’t? Then who was the “organized church” when those eleven men and few women were the only followers of Jesus? Those eleven men had been ordained and organized for service by Jesus Himself. Most people would not consider this ordination to have gone through the “proper channels,” and to some they seemed like such a small band of workers. Oh, that our spiritual vision could be quickened! Could we once see the King in His glory, we would understand “the fullness of Him that filleth all in all.” Ephesians 1:23.
Upon this Rock
Today some are quoting Matthew 16:18 as an unconditional promise that the General Conference, which was started by God, is going through. “. . . upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” This is a wonderful unfailing promise, just as the one in Jeremiah 31. But it has conditions built into it. Before Christ said those most striking and confident words, He asked Peter this question: ” ‘Whom say ye that I am?” And Simon Peter answered and said, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ ” Matthew 16:15, 16. There is the condition. A certain future is freely opened to ALL—independent and conference ministries alike—IF through righteousness by faith we behold Jesus as the Son of God, and through that power live a godly life. But, if our actions show that we are not confessing Him as the “Son of the living God,” we cannot claim the promise. The greatest manifestation of His power is to take sinners and freely forgive them and give them power to obey the law of heaven. That is how Jesus is confessed to the world.
Ellen White writes on this very verse in Desire of Ages, in the chapter, “The Foreshadowing of the Cross,” 410–418. “The truth that Peter had confessed is the foundation of the believer’s faith.” Confessing Him to the world is the sublime privilege and responsibility of beholding Jesus. That makes us a part of the church that the gates of hell cannot prevail against.
“Jesus continued: ‘I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’ The word Peter signifies a stone,—a rolling stone. Peter was not the rock upon which the church was founded. The gates of hell did prevail against him when he denied his Lord with cursing and swearing. The church was built upon One against whom the gates of hell could not prevail.
“Centuries before the Saviour’s advent Moses had pointed to the Rock of Israel’s salvation. The psalmist had sung of ‘the Rock of my strength.’ Isaiah had written, ‘Thus saith the Lord God, Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation.’ Deuteronomy 32:4; Psalms 62:7; Isaiah 28:16. Peter himself, writing by inspiration, applies this prophecy to Jesus. He says, ‘If ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious: unto whom coming, a living stone, rejected indeed of men, but with God elect, precious, ye also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house.’ 1 Peter 2:3-5, R. V.
“‘Other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.’ 1 Corinthians 3:11. ‘Upon this rock,’ said Jesus, ‘I will build My church.’ In the presence of God, and all the heavenly intelligences, in the presence of the unseen army of hell, Christ founded His church upon the living Rock. That Rock is Himself,—His own body, for us broken and bruised. Against the church built upon this foundation, the gates of hell shall not prevail.
“How feeble the church appeared when Christ spoke these words! There was only a handful of believers, against whom all the power of demons and evil men would be directed; yet the followers of Christ were not to fear. Built upon the Rock of their strength, they could not be overthrown.”
Let us look at another aspect of this unconditional promise theology. When Jesus came here, did He come at the risk of failure and eternal loss? Or was He guaranteed triumph over temptation by an unconditional promise? “Our Saviour took humanity, with all its liabilities. He took the nature of man, with the possibility of yielding to temptation. We have nothing to bear which He has not endured.” The Desire of Ages, 117. “He [God] permitted Him to meet life’s peril in common with every human soul, to fight the battle as every child of humanity must fight it, at the risk of failure and eternal loss.” The Desire of Ages, 49. “He not only became an exile from the heavenly courts, but for us took the risk of failure and eternal loss.” The Desire of Ages, 131. That is so plain that it cannot be disputed. Jesus came at the risk of eternal loss if He yielded to temptation.
Where does this idea come from that somehow there is a particular group of people who are predestined to triumph because they think they have an unconditional promise? It comes straight from the evil one. While we are to have unwavering faith in God’s promises, we will be lost if we have the devil’s counterfeit of faith, which is presumption. “But faith is in no sense allied to presumption. Only he who has true faith is secure against presumption. For presumption is Satan’s counterfeit of faith. Faith claims God’s promises, and brings forth fruit in obedience. Presumption also claims the promises, but uses them as Satan did, to excuse transgression. Faith would have led our first parents to trust the love of God, and to obey His commands. Presumption led them to transgress His law, believing that His great love would save them from the consequence of their sin. It is not faith that claims the favor of Heaven without complying with the conditions on which mercy is to be granted. Genuine faith has its foundation in the promises and provisions of the Scriptures.” The Desire of Ages, 126.
Notice that both faith and presumption use the promises of God. Claiming God’s promises does not prove anything. Even the devil quoted a promise of God to tempt Christ. Friend, we can be fooled by thinking that if we just trust in the promises, that we have a guarantee of salvation. Not only can individuals be fooled, but whole churches can be deceived. Presumption will lead such a one, or such a group, into thinking that they can go ahead and transgress God’s law in little areas, believing that God’s great love will save them from the consequences of sin. But this is not true faith, and has nothing to do with salvation. Rather, this false assurance, leads straight to destruction. True faith always wants to comply with the conditions, so it can receive the unshakable kingdom.
Promises or Warnings
God does have unfailing promises, but to be unfailing for us, we must fulfill the condition. The reality of our situation is that if we do not have a righteousness by faith experience which results in overcoming sin—keeping God’s law, we will not obtain the promises. God has sent warnings also. Here is a sample of God’s warnings. “Of those who boast of their light, and yet fail to walk in it, Christ says, ‘But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you. And thou, Capernaum [Seventh-day Adventists, who have had great light], which art exalted unto heaven [in point of privilege], shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.’ At that time Jesus answered and said, ‘I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent [in their own estimation], and hast revealed them unto babes.’” Review and Herald, August 1, 1893. [Comments in brackets in the original.]