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Part 6. Even the Investigative Judgment can be Good News
In a world of sin, the spectre of judgment raises both our hopes and our fears. Scripture portrays the human family as playing several roles within the framework of the judgment concept: the role of the plaintiff, who cries out against oppression, injustice, and the suffering of innocent people; the role of the accused, who stands before the divine tribunal as one guilty of contributing to the agony and pain in the world; and the role of the witness, who has experienced salvation and speaks on behalf of the goodness of God and His law. An adequate doctrine of judgment should account for all three elements.
In the Adventist community, recent discussion has centered on the concept of the investigative judgmentits biblical foundation and its impact on Christian experience. A complicating factor is the variety of ways in which the imagery of the heavenly courtroom can be interpreted. Some interpret the symbols very literally, while others tend to think in more abstract terms. The result is a certain tension that the Adventist community simply must learn to live with.
As is the case with many Christian doctrines, the biblical foundation of the Adventist doctrine of judgment is not found complete in a single context, but requires a synthesis of biblical data in the light of the Adventist experience. Furthermore, the community's understanding of the doctrine has been a growing one, revealing shifts in emphasis and the integration of new elements. Leviticus 16, Daniel 7 to 9, Zechariah 3, and Revelation 14 are key passages. The book of Job also contributes to the larger picture, providing the cosmic setting highlighting the motives of the adversary.
But of paramount importance in Adventism is the way in which the believer has experienced judgment. If God is seen as both distant and reluctant, we may feel overwhelmed by the sense of our own unworthiness. The gulf between God and the sinner may seem too deep to bridge and God may be viewed as throwing down impossible demands.
If we find ourselves trembling and shaking before a reluctant God, we are hardly in a position to witness joyfully and confidently to His goodness. Yet, that is the ultimate goal of the judgment. In the words of Ellen White, "Ye are My witnesses, saith the Lord, that I am God" (Isaiah 43:12)witnesses that He is good and that goodness is supreme" (Education, 154).
The only time that I could conceive of going to court gladly would be to witness for a good friend, one that I know and trust. In the context of the investigative judgment, that friend is God. To see the investigative judgment culminating in such a witness does not detract from the seriousness of the judgment for human beings, but rather enables us to look through the process of judgment to its goal and to sing the praises of the God who has redeemed us.
But, is it really possible to envision a joyful conclusion within the framework of the investigative judgment? If we take seriously Ellen White's growing experience, we can indeed. In the course of her experience, she traveled the road from fear to love, from command to invitation, from Sinai to Golgotha. Such a shift in emphasis in no way lessens the ethical demands of God's law. A response out of love actually intensifies our sense of responsibility because it flows from within.
This article describes the shift in emphasis in the concept of the investigative judgment that is reflected in the writings of Ellen White, a shift which enables the believer to live in the assurance that God is both willing and able to save those who come to him.
Perhaps a quick synopsis of the two different emphases would provide a simple comparison between the Sinai and Golgotha views of the investigative judgment.
From a Sinai perspective, the judgment accentuates the gulf between a holy God and a sinful people. The thought of standing in the presence of a holy God without a mediator brings terror just as it did for ancient Israel (cf. Exodus 20:18, 19).
By contrast, a Golgotha perspective emphasizes the union between God and the believer. The believer has fully recognized his own status as a sinner, but has also fully accepted the sacrifice of Christ on his behalf. As a result, the believer no longer sees God simply as Judge, but as Father; he no longer trembles in God's presence as the accused, for he stands acquitted in Christ Jesus. The fear of judgment is gone. God has claimed him as His own.
No longer preoccupied with his own survival, the believer now recognizes that judgment has a much greater purpose, namely the vindication of God and His law against the attacks of Satan. Confidently, the believer now stands in court as a witness to the goodness of God and His law.
In Ellen White's experience, the roots of that more positive view of judgment go back to a vision of 1880. Its fruit appeared in mature form in Prophets and Kings (1915). We shall look at the details shortly, but the 35 years between point to a significant question, namely, why was the "better" explanation so long in coming? My own conviction is that the early Adventists would never have believed it. I would use a similar argument in explaining the long "delay" before God sent His Son. Among the ex-slaves at Sinai, the gentle man from Nazareth would have been trampled in the dust. Sinai had to come before Golgotha; the impact of sin made it necessary.
But a shift in emphasis in the understanding of the investigative judgment also requires a willingness to see God in a particular way, as a God who is not afraid to allow the universe to put His law and His government to the test. Now for some reason, I have had no great difficulty accepting the idea of God putting His law and government on trial before the universe. Yet, I have occasionally wondered why some Adventists, and very loyal ones at that, simply did not get very excited about the idea. I caught a clearer glimpse into that kind of thinking in connection with the Sabbath School lessons on Job a few quarters ago. Some of the believers were very uncomfortable with the way Satan talked with God. [Cf. Job 1:9-12; 2:3-6.] Such talk was inappropriate and ought not to have been allowed! They firmly believe in the Bible but they do not know what to do with the book of Job.
Behind that kind of thinking lie two significant convictions that play a powerful role, especially in the lives of religious people: First, that sinners cannot exist in the presence of a holy God, and second, that created beings dare not question God. Both statements are terribly true, terribly dangerous, and very easily misunderstood.
The first statement has biblical support, [Eg. Exodus 33:21-23; Deuteronomy 4:24; I Timothy 6:16; cf. Revelation 6:17] and express the fundamental truth that sin and holiness are ultimately incompatible. The second statement likewise has biblical support [Esp. Romans 9:9-23; cf. Isaiah 45:9-11.] and expresses the fundamental truth that God is the ultimate authority.
Why then are such statements so dangerous? Because a guilty conscience can distort them, imagining horrible things about God, things which the mind can come to believe as truth. Thus, the incompatibility of holiness and sin can be exaggerated to the point where God is seen as angry and disgusted with this race of rebels, annoyed that He has to have any contact with sinners at all, and demanding that every sin be fully punished.
As for God's ultimate authority, an over-emphasis can lead to the total exclusion of human freedom. Thus God becomes, at best, a benevolent dictator, at worse, a cruel despot.
The natural results of sin tend to encourage both exaggerations. That is precisely why sin is so sinister and devastating. We see the first clear example in the experience of Adam and Eve where their own sense of guilt drove them to hide from God and even to blame Him for their failure, though there had been no display of "divine wrath." [Cf. Genesis 3:8-13.] Even fully repentant sinners have difficulty believing that God wishes full restoration as the cry of the prodigal son poignantly reveals: "I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants." (Luke 15:19). Most assuredly, sonship does not depend on worthiness, yet the adversary plays on the guilt feelings which naturally follow sin, tempting us to believe that God has turned His back on us in anger.
Thus, there is a fierce struggle within as we long to be with God and yet fear His presence. We are torn between the cry of Jacob: "I will not let you go, unless you bless me" (Genesis 32:26), and the cry of Peter: "Depart from me for I am a sinful man" (Luke 5:8). Only a new world and a new heart will still that battle forever. In the meantime, God seeks to convince us that sin is indeed a dangerous enemy, but that He loves us even when we sin.
In Scripture, we find interesting traces of that tension between the human longing to be reunited with God and the human horror of coming into His presence at all. Some passages suggest that seeing God is not possible, [Cf. Genesis 3:8-13.] while others clearly demonstrate that not only is it possible, but that it has already happened, though the human participants were amazed that they had survived. Jacob exclaimed: "I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved" (Genesis 32:30). A similar reflection appears in that fascinating passage describing the meeting between God and the elders of Israel: "They saw the God of Israel . . . and He did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank" (Exodus 24:10, 11). The biblical passage hints that by all rights He should have laid hands on them. But no, "they beheld God, and ate and drank."
One way of resolving the tension between these two feelings is to emphasize the role of the mediator as our protection against the wrath of God. In Jesus Christ we find peace with God, for He paid the price of our sin. The wrath of God which we deserve has been poured out on our substitute. Thus, we keep our distance from God the Father, but find in Jesus Christ the friendly face of God. Such a view emphasizes the sovereignty and authority of God and is often attractive to those who keenly sense the gulf between God and man.
The emphasis on the sovereignty of God finds its most thorough development in John Calvin's doctrine of predestination, a teaching which Adventists clearly reject. We believe it is our privilege to serve God out of love and by our own free choice.
A typical Calvinist would not be very enthusiastic about the Great Controversy Story, at least not in the way Ellen White told it in her later years, for God is much too approachable and much too willing to put Himself and his law on trial before the universe. Interestingly enough, early Adventists would have sided very easily with the Calvinists when it came to their view of God. God, as they saw Him, would never open Himself to scrutiny; He is to be obeyed, not questioned.
But I am convinced that God was preparing Adventists to reach quite another audience than the Calvinists, namely modern skeptics who cannot believe that a good God has willed all the strife and trouble in this world. Adventists have been called to stand in that noble tradition of believing skeptics who are concerned about God's reputation and are not afraid to say so, even to God Himself. Like Abraham, for example: "You can't do that. You are the judge of all the earth!" (Genesis 18:25). Or like Moses: "If you do that what will the Egyptians say?" (Exodus 32:12). To be able to talk with God like that, however, one has to be on very good terms with Him. God must be known to be friendly, fair and open. But that is exactly what our forefathers had difficulty believing. It would take time before they could see the friendly face of God and even then, the possibility for confusion would not entirely disappear.
And that brings us to our modern problem as we attempt to resolve the tension between a reluctant God and a friendly one. In my own experience, the tension focused on the first chapter in Steps to Christ and the one on the investigative judgment in the book Great Controversy (pp. 479-90). In Steps to Christ I learned that the view of God as a "severe judge" was a deception of satanic origin. It was Satan who "pictured the Creator as a being who is watching with jealous eye to discern the errors and mistakes of men" (SC 10-11).
But when I turned to the book Great Controversy and read about the investigative judgment, I was in trouble again, for I was tempted to believe that God was, after all, looking for a way to keep me out of His kingdom, rather than trying to get me in: every word and deed is recorded with "terrible exactness" (Great Controversy, 481); every case is closely investigated and when any are found with a sin unrepented of, "their names are blotted out of the book of life" (Great Controversy, 483); even things that we have forgotten "will bear their testimony to justify or condemn" (Great Controversy, 487). The impression one can get from these passages is that even diligent effort in seeking forgiveness can all be for nought if we happen to "forget" a sin that we have committed at some point in our life. Now I know that the passages cited do not actually say that, but they do give that impression. I now recognize that these passages refer to cherished sins, an emphasis that puts quite a different complexion on the whole matter. But even then, whenever we think of the investigative judgment as the last hurdle before we can be saved, uncertainty can still haunt us.
An important first step for resolving the difficulty in my own experience came while I was a seminary student at Andrews University. I decided I must settle in my own mind the matter of the mediator: Why did I need one if God loved me? The answer came from John 14-17 where I discovered that the purpose of the mediator was to introduce us to a friendly God, not to protect us from a reluctant one. As Jesus put it: "If you have seen me you have seen the Father" (John 14:9). But perhaps even more significant in the Adventist context is John 16:26-27, where I found a fresh possibility for interpreting Ellen White's statement that "we must stand in the sight of a holy God without a mediator" (Great Controversy 425): "In that day you will ask in my name, and I do not say that I shall pray the Father for you; for the Father himself loves you." In the context of Ellen White's original statement I still detect a trace of fear, but on the basis of John's Gospel I would say that fear is unnecessary. As long as we are afraid, the mediator is there, for God knows the powerful impact of sin and guilt. But the goal of Christian experience is to live once again in God's presence without fear. That is a promise, not a threat.
The next step in my search for a solution to the experiential difficulties connected with the investigative judgment came in the spring of 1980. After preparing a study document on the development of Ellen White's theology, I commented to a colleague: "The only missing piece in the Golgotha picture is eschatology. That is one place where fear still lurks. Wouldn't it be interesting if we could see how Ellen White would re-write the book Great Controversy again if she had the chance?
[Of the five books in the Conflict series, Great Controversy was the only one that was not written or totally re-written after 1888. The standard edition today (1911) differs only slightly from the 1888 edition, i.e., some historical quotations were changed and references were added. See Arthur White, Ellen G. White, Messenger to the Remnant, Washington, D.C.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1954, p. 58.]
I suspected how Ellen White would have told the story, but was concerned how far we could go without prophetic authority.
And then I found itwith the aid of a student who wrongly quoted a passage from Prophets and Kings. In checking his quotation I suddenly realized that here was an entire chapter dealing with the investigative judgment: "Joshua and the Angel" (pp. 582-592). With great eagerness I read it through, looking for traces of the reluctant God. I found none. The whole chapter is the story of the investigative judgment written from the perspective of a loving God who wants to save sinners. Further research revealed some fascinating background.
The seed that was to bear such rich fruit was apparently sown in 1880. As told in Life Sketches, Ellen White inquired in vision, "Where is the security for the people of God in these days of peril? In response, God referred her to Zechariah 3:1-2 and declared that Jesus was our security against Satan. "Jesus will lead all who are willing to be led" (Life Sketches, 324) Prior to this vision Ellen White apparently had not realized the significance of Zechariah 3:1-2 for the Great Controversy story.
[The Index to the Writings of Ellen G. White lists no occurrences of the text before 1880.]
But now God had sown the seed; it would be only a matter of time until it would germinate and bear fruit.
The Index to the Writings of E. G. White lists four passages where Ellen White comments significantly on Zechariah 3:1, 2; 5 Testimonies 467-476 (1885), Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing 116, 117 (1896), Christ's Object Lessons 166-170 (1900), and Prophets and Kings 582-592 (1917). All four of the contexts discuss the text in the setting of the Great Controversy. Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing 117 states that Satan accuses us, not in some obscure courtroom, but "before the universe." Christ's Object Lessons 168 indicates that, not only is Satan accusing the believers, but God himself. Furthermore, when Christ speaks for his people, he confesses them, not before a reluctant Father, but "before the universe" (Christ's Object Lessons 170). Clearly the Father and the Son are united in their love for man and in their desire to rebuke the adversary.
But what I find most fascinating about Ellen White's use of Zechariah 3:1-2 is the way she takes the 5 Testimonies article and further refines it 30 years later for use in Prophets and Kings. In effect, she softens those aspects that could discourage and expands on those that encourage. The result is a masterful integration of the investigative judgment into the picture of a loving God. And it happens in her very last book.
When compared with the 5 Testimonies article, the account in Prophets and Kings reveals one addition and one deletion that are particularly significant. The addition is found in Prophets and Kings 589 as part of the Lord's rebuke of the adversary. After claiming His people as His own, the Lord declares: "They may have imperfections of character; they may have failed in their endeavors; but they have repented, and I have forgiven and accepted them." What an encouragement! We may slip and fall, but if we have given our hearts to God, He will rebuke the adversary. No reluctance here to save those who are still suffering growing pains; their hearts are with God and He claims them as His.
The significant deletion is a more delicate matter, for it is terribly truebut if seen from the viewpoint of Mt. Sinai it could so easily be misunderstood. Prophets and Kings omits two paragraphs from pages 471-72 of 5 Testimonies. Both paragraphs admonish the Christian to strive to overcome every defect. That, of course, should be the goal of every Christian. But the one sentence that could cause problems runs as follows: "No sin can be tolerated in those who shall walk with Christ in white" (p. 472). If that statement is seen as describing the Christian's deep desire to obey Christ, then all is well. But if it is linked with a view of God which seeks Him looking for excuses to catch sinners, then the Christian who slips and falls will flee in terror. So even though the statement is certainly true, no doubt Ellen White's heightened concern for struggling sinners led her to delete it when she was preparing the material for Prophets and Kings.
Once we recognize that God has justified us in Christ, then we can joyfully go into judgment prepared to witness for God and His law. That joy, I have found, is the strongest motivation possible for obedience, for now I want to obey because He has saved me. It is no longer a matter of earning salvation or of simply avoiding punishment. Obedience is the fruit of salvation.
Now whenever I find someone struggling with the investigative judgment, I recommend without hesitation the chapter on "Joshua and the Angel" in Prophets and Kings. The Great Controversy story has come a long way since it was first published in 1858, but what a testimony it is to God's care for His people. He was preparing the way for His people, not only to find acceptance in Him, but also to demonstrate the goodness of God and His law to a skeptical world. God would have liked to have given the full message right at the beginning, but the beams of truth had to come gradually or His people would have turned away from light.
Because of man's fallen condition God has been willing to use both commands and invitations, fear and love; but there is no question as to which He prefers. He has shown us His love "that we may have confidence in the day of judgment" (1 John 4:17). "Perfect love casts out fear" (verse 18). In the sunshine of that love, even the investigative judgment is good news, for we stand no longer accused, but acquitted in Christ Jesus. Before the universe we are witnesses to the goodness of God.
This article was first published in the Westwind Winter 1982