Are Adventists Old-Covenant Christians? (part 4)
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In the previous two posts,1 we reviewed the major systems of covenant thought in the Protestant tradition. 

Image © Linda Lovett from GoodSalt.com

We split the systems into categories A and B – “A” being those that affirm the perpetuity of the law and “B” representing those that reject the perpetuity of the law. We also saw how Adventism’s understanding of covenant theology most closely resembles the views held by the Reformers in category A. In today’s post, we will begin to explore in detail where Adventism fits in light of these systems. Do we have a covenant theology that is unheard of? Are the critics correct in labeling us “Old-Covenant Christians?” Those questions will be answered in this post.

Below is the chart from the previous post for reference:

*Pedobaptist: Affirms infant baptism // Credobaptist: affirms believers baptism (Note: If you right-click to “Open image in new tab/window,” you’ll see a larger, more legible image.)


Are Adventists Old-Covenant Christians?

Adventism holds to an Arminian-Wesleyan understanding of salvation.2 It affirms sola scriptura, the interpretive priority of the NT over the OT, Trinitarian doctrine, and holds to all the principles of the Protestant reformation.3 It also contends that the imparted and imputed righteousness of Christ are essential elements of the gospel and that good works are the natural outflow of genuine faith. Adventism also holds to what can be labeled a “Sanctuary Hermeneutic” which places Jesus at the beginning, center, and end of the entire narrative of Scripture (explored in more detail in the next post). In this sense, Adventism can be said to have a very similar concern as New Covenant Theology in that a consistent Christ-centered approach to Scripture is the only method by which the meaning of Scripture can be fully derived.

The sacrifice of Christ as an atonement for sin is the great truth around which all other truths cluster. In order to be rightly understood and appreciated, every truth in the Word of God, from Genesis to Revelation, must be studied in the light that streams from the cross of Calvary. I present before you the great, grand monument of mercy and regeneration, salvation and redemption–the Son of God uplifted on the cross. This is to be the foundation of every discourse given by our ministers. (White, Ellen G. Seventh-Day Adventist Bible Commentary, Vol. 7, (Gospel Workers, p. 315.)

The Adventist View of Salvation: 

Adventism is Arminian-Wesleyan which is the view that God has always had a plan of salvation from before creation that mankind is free to either embrace or reject. According to this view, mankind is too sinful to seek God, but God seeks man, and enables us to respond to His grace. Salvation can never be earned, aided, or deserved. It is always a free gift of God.

The Adventist Covenant Story: 

Adventism believes in one Eternal Covenant of Grace. This Eternal Covenant basically means that it has ever been God’s delight to interact with His creation via grace. Thus, before any mention or exploration of biblical covenants, we must first understand the “Eternal Covenant.” In Adventism, this eternal covenant is part of our Big Story which interacts with an Arminian perspective of God.

Let those who are oppressed under a sense of sin remember that there is hope for them. The salvation of the human race has ever been the object of the councils of heaven. The covenant of mercy was made before the foundation of the world. It has existed from all eternity, and is called the everlasting covenant. So surely as there never was a time when God was not, so surely there never was a moment when it was not the delight of the eternal mind to manifest His grace to humanity. (White, Ellen G. “S.D.A. Bible Commentary”, Vol 7, pg. 934 (Signs of the Times, June 12, 1901)

For Adventism the meaning of the Eternal Covenant is plain. Grace does not exist as a reaction to sin. Grace has always existed. Grace is the heart of God. Grace is the way by which we understand why God created and how He interacts with His creation. Sin did not provide a platform for grace to emerge. Grace was prior to sin. The beauty of the narrative of Scripture is not that man sinned and God responded with grace, but that man sinned and grace remained. 

The Eternal Covenant can then be separated into three overarchingcovenants of Redemption, Works, and Grace (just as was seen in the Westminster and Second London confessions). Although Adventism has never used this distinction in a systematic sense each of the elements are present within its system:

  1. Covenant of Redemption: The plan of salvation had been laid before the creation of the earth; for Christ is “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8)…. Oh, the mystery of redemption! the love of God for a world that did not love Him! Who can know the depths of that love which “passeth knowledge”? Through endless ages immortal minds, seeking to comprehend the mystery of that incomprehensible love, will wonder and adore. (White, Ellen G. “Patriarchs and Prophets”, p. 63.3). Note that due to its Arminian heritage Adventism does not see the Covenant of Redemption as the time in which God sovereignly elected some to salvation and others to damnation but simply as the time in which God laid out the plan of salvation that he would make freely available to all of mankind.]
  2. Covenant of Works: God made man upright; He gave him noble traits of character, with no bias toward evil. He endowed him with high intellectual powers, and presented before him the strongest possible inducements to be true to his allegiance. Obedience, perfect and perpetual, was the condition of eternal happiness. On this condition he was to have access to the tree of life. (White, Ellen G. “Patriarchs and Prophets”, p. 49.2)
  3. Covenant of Grace: The broken law of God demanded the life of the sinner. In all the universe there was but one who could, in behalf of man, satisfy its claims. Since the divine law is as sacred as God Himself, only one equal with God could make atonement for its transgression. None but Christ could redeem fallen man from the curse of the law and bring him again into harmony with Heaven. Christ would take upon Himself the guilt and shame of sin—sin so offensive to a holy God that it must separate the Father and His Son. Christ would reach to the depths of misery to rescue the ruined race. (White, Ellen G. “Patriarchs and Prophets”, p. 63.2)

Adventism also affirms that once man fell into sin salvation could only ever come by grace and never by works. Thus, Genesis 3:15 introduces the Covenant of Grace which is made official in the New Covenant through Jesus death. Adventism also teaches that the Old Covenant was a means by which God communicated His grace to Israel, not a separate or distinct method of salvation.

There is no such contrast as is often claimed to exist between the Old and the New Testament, the law of God and the gospel of Christ, the requirements of the Jewish and those of the Christian dispensation. Every soul saved in the former dispensation was saved by Christ as verily as we are saved by Him today…. The gospel promise was given to the first pair in Eden, when they had by transgression separated themselves from God. The gospel was preached to Abraham. The Hebrews all drank of that spiritual Rock, which was Christ. (8. White, Ellen G. The Signs of the Times, September 14, 1882)

Christ Himself was the originator of the Jewish system of worship, in which, by types and symbols, were shadowed forth spiritual and heavenly things. Many forgot the true significance of these offerings; and the great truth that through Christ alone there is forgiveness of sin, was lost to them. The multiplying of sacrificial offerings, the blood of bulls and goats, could not take away sin. (White, Ellen G. “Seventh-Day Adventist Bible Commentary,” Vol. 7, p. 933 [The Signs of the Times, January 2, 1893])

A lesson was embodied in every sacrifice, impressed in every ceremony, solemnly preached by the priest in his holy office, and inculcated by God Himself—that through the blood of Christ alone is there forgiveness of sins. How little we as a people feel the force of this great truth! How seldom, by living, acting faith, do we bring into our lives this great truth, that there is forgiveness for the least sin, forgiveness for the greatest sin! (White, Ellen G. “Seventh-Day Adventist Bible Commentary”, Vol. 7, p. 913 [The Review and Herald, September 21, 1886])

This means that, for Adventism, none of the OT saints were reconciled to God via the Old Covenant. Rather, they were saved in anticipation of the death of Jesus. Once Jesus came, the Old Covenant met its antitype, and the symbols typifying the gospel were no longer necessary. Salvation is now here, not as a shadow, but as an accomplished reality. By His life and death Jesus fulfilled all of the conditions that were needed for grace to flow freely from heaven to earth. 

The atonement of Christ sealed forever the everlasting covenant of grace. It was the fulfilling of every condition upon which God suspended the free communication of grace to the human family. Every barrier was then broken down which intercepted the freest exercise of grace, mercy, peace, and love to the most guilty of Adam’s race. (White, Ellen G. “Seventh-Day Adventist Bible Commentary”, Vol. 7, p. 933 [Manuscript 92, 1899])

Covenant Continuity/ Discontinuity:

Up to this point, it is clear that Adventism has a covenant theology similar to “Category A: Covenantalism” and is especially similar to the Second London Baptist confession. The similarities continue in its understanding of covenant continuity/ discontinuity.

Recall that the Westminster confession of the early Reformers sees all the OT Covenants as the Covenant of Grace “dressed in ceremonies” and from there, it argues that they are all the same covenant (this is why they continue to practice infant baptism). Over against this the Second London argues that the OT Covenants are not the Covenant of Grace but that they were typological narratives that pointed forward to the New Covenant which is the Covenant of Grace (Consequently, they reject infant baptism). Adventism holds a middle view that both affirms the Abrahamic Covenant as the Covenant of Grace and yet rejects infant baptism at the same time.

According to Adventism, the Everlasting Covenant is the Covenant of Grace. Once man fell into sin, this Covenant of Grace was revealed to Adam (Adamic Covenant; Gen. 3:15, 21) and typified by the death of an animal and covering of their nakedness by the animal’s skin which foreshadowed the death of Christ and the covering of our sin by His righteousness alone. Thousands of years later, during a time when most people had forgotten about this Covenant of Grace, God renewed it via the Abrahamic Covenant.

After the Flood the people once more increased on the earth, and wickedness also increased…. The Lord finally left the hardened transgressors to follow their evil ways, while He chose Abraham, of the line of Shem, and made him the keeper of His law for future generations. This same covenant [the covenant of grace made with Adam] was renewed to Abraham in the promise “In thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 22:18). This promise pointed to Christ. So Abraham understood it, and he trusted in Christ for the forgiveness of sins. It was this faith that was accounted to him for righteousness. (White, Ellen G. “Gods Amazing Grace”, p. 133)

Thus, according to Adventism, the Covenant of Grace God made with Adam (offspring of the woman would crush the serpent’s head; Gen. 3:15) was the same covenant He made with Abraham (offspring of Abraham would bless all nations; Gen. 12:1-3). In other words, the Abrahamic Covenant is a “renewal” of the Adamic Covenant (Covenant of Grace) which had, by now, been largely forgotten. This Abrahamic covenant is a universal and unconditional covenant in that “all the nations of the earth would be blessed” by His offspring (Jesus) and that God alone made the promises (Gen. 12:1-3, 15:18-21). Abraham believed the promises by faith and was accounted righteous (Rom. 4:3) just as in the New Covenant where “grace through faith” is the condition of being accounted righteous (Rom. 4:16).

Adventism and Lawlessness

Following this line of thinking, one could conclude that Adventism agrees with the Westminster on this point (that the New Covenant and the Abrahamic covenant are the same) and should, therefore, adopt infant-baptism. However, such is not the case. While Adventism does see the Abrahamic Covenant and the New Covenant as being the same covenant, it means something different by that statement than is meant by the Westminster. For the early Reformers, the covenant similarity formed the basis for defending their stance on infant baptism (Jewish infants in the OT were circumcised therefore Christian infants in the NT should be baptized). Adventism has never really debated the issue of infant baptism because its roots are primarily Wesleyan-Methodist and so it has always affirmed believers’ baptism.

Rather, when Adventism says that the Abrahamic Covenant and New Covenant are the same, it is dealing with a different context than the early Reformers. Recall that each of the covenantal views have, in their history, been plagued by anti-law theology. Adventism’s view of the covenants is a proactive rejection of anti-law theology in all of its forms. According to Scripture, Abraham was justified by faith apart from the works of the law (Gen. 15:6, Rom. 4). However, Scripture is also clear that Abraham obeyed all of God’s commands (Gen. 26:5). Abraham heard and believed the gospel (Gal. 3:8) that all of mankind would be justified by faith apart from works and yet, he did not from this reason that obedience to the law was now unnecessary (anti-law). If Abraham could respond to the gospel by faith and obedience, clearly the New Covenant, which the Abrahamic Covenant promised, would not include a cancellation of the law. Rather, the New Covenant would maintain the same relationship of grace and law found in the Abrahamic covenant for they are the same covenant.

Christ does not lessen the claims of the law. In unmistakable language He presents obedience to it as the condition of eternal life—the same condition that was required of Adam before his fall…. The requirement under the covenant of grace is just as broad as the requirement made in Eden—harmony with God’s law, which is holy, just, and good….(White, Ellen G. “Gods Amazing Grace”, p. 134)

Under the new covenant, the conditions by which eternal life may be gained are the same as under the old—perfect obedience…. In the new and better covenant, Christ has fulfilled the law for the transgressors of law, if they receive Him by faith as a personal Saviour…. In the better covenant we are cleansed from sin by the blood of Christ. (White, Ellen G. “Gods Amazing Grace”, p. 136)

Thus, according to Adventism, obedience to the law has always been the requirement for salvation and remains so to this day. However, being that man is sinful and cannot render such obedience God promised justification in the Adamic and Abrahamic covenant. But the Abrahamic Covenant demonstrates that this promised justification (New Covenant) does not lessen the claims of the law. Rather, through its merits we are clothed with Christ’s righteousness and brought into a right relationship with the law. Such a position is a clear rebuttal of the anti-law views which claim that grace gives men freedom to break the law of God. Adventism’s view is also perfectly in keeping with Jeremiah’s proclamation that in the New Covenant God would write His laws in our minds and hearts (Jer. 31:33).

Thus, while Adventism sees the Abrahamic Covenant and the New Covenant as being the same covenant, Adventism means something different by that statement than is meant by the Westminster. For the Westminster, the covenant similarity forms the basis for defending their stance on infant baptism. For Adventists, the covenant similarity forms the basis for rejecting anti-law theology. Infant baptism doesn’t even enter the picture. Nevertheless, the views Adventism holds in its rejection of anti-law theology are not unique to its system. Both the Westminster and the Second London reject anti-law theology and uphold the continual and perpetual validity of the Ten Commandments in the New Covenant.

Adventism and Infant Baptism 

[Note: Only read this section if you are interested in why Adventism rejects infant baptism. If you are not interested in this issue, feel free to proceed to the next section below titled “Adventism and the Mosaic Covenant“]

Because Adventism has never really debated the issue of infant baptism, sources explaining its rejection of it do not exist. Therefore, in this section I will attempt – as best and simply as possible – to propose an argument. 

The first point to note is that Adventism still holds to strong distinctions between the Abrahamic and New Covenant. For the Westminster the OT and NT covenants are equal, whereas for Adventism they are approximately equal meaning that the Abrahamic covenant approximates the New Covenant but is not equal to it just as an engagement approximates a marriage and yet is not equal to it. Thus, while Adventism can affirm that the Abrahamic Covenant is the New Covenant it can likewise affirm that there are strong distinctions between the two. 

Though this covenant was made with Adam and renewed to Abraham, it could not be ratified until the death of Christ. It had existed by the promise of God since the first intimation of redemption had been given; it had been accepted by faith; yet when ratified by Christ, it is called a new covenant. (White, Ellen G. “God’s Amazing Grace”, p. 133)

The first distinction to note is that Adventism sees the Abrahamic Covenant as the “un-official” version of the New Covenant. Both are centered on the promises and work of Jesus, so they are the same covenant. The difference is that under Abraham the covenant was not official. It depended on a future reality. Under Christ, the covenant is official because it has been accomplished. Therefore, in both the Adamic and Abrahamic Covenant salvation was promised but also depended on a future event (death of Jesus). But under the New Covenant, our salvation is official the moment we accept Christ for the atonement is already complete. According to Adventism, while the Abrahamic Covenant is the Covenant of Grace it is, in and of itself not the promise of redemption. Rather, “the Abrahamic covenant contained the promise of redemption”4 making it the same covenant in an “approximate” sense, not an exact one.

The second distinction to note is that while Adventism’s view on covenant similarity between the Abrahamic and New Covenant is based primarily on the universal promise of justification, the Abrahamic Covenant cannot be summarized simply in justification by faith. Clearly, the covenant included a promise of descendants and land for those descendants which was then grafted into the Mosaic and Davidic Covenants as well. This includes the rite of circumcision which Adventism affirms is still in continuation today only it is now “of the heart” not “the flesh” (Rom. 2:29). In addition, we understand the OT covenants to be designed so that God could establish a people on the earth through whom His narrative would be guarded and the messiah would come and this was a national people. But with the arrival of the church the descendants of Abraham are revealed to be those who share in the patriarch’s faith, not simply those who share his DNA.

Consequently, Adventists are not infant baptists. Since Adventism holds that the Abrahamic Covenant and the New Covenant are approximately equal (and not exactly equal) it does not make the same claim of continuity between the two covenants that the Westminster does. Distinctions between the two remain beginning with the fact that one is official and the other not and that the official version has a different sign (baptism) to the un-official (circumcision).  While Adventism affirms that circumcision informs our understanding the New Covenant sign of baptism, and that the two signs overlap in meaning, they are not the same sign. Because circumcision under the New Covenant is “of the heart” it requires an informed decision that cannot be rendered by an infant. And due to the true Israel being the children of faith (and infants cannot exercise faith) it likewise rejects infant baptism while affirming that, in terms of the promise of justification by faith, the Abrahamic Covenant is the New Covenant. Thus Adventism affirms believers baptism.

Westminster

Adventism

Second London

Abrahamic Covenant = New Covenant

Circumcision = Baptism

Infant baptism affirmed

Abrahamic Covenant ≅ New Covenant

Circumcision ≅ Baptism

Infant Baptism Denied

Abrahamic Covenant ≠ New Covenant

Circumcision ≠ Baptism

Pedobaptism Denied

= (Equal to)

≅ (Approximately Equal to)

≠ Not Equal to

However, keep in mind that, while I have taken some time to address this here, when it comes to the discussion over the Abrahamic Covenant and the New Covenant, Adventism is simply not dealing with infant/believers baptism. Instead, it is dealing with justification by faith in both covenants which resulted in a life of obedience to God’s law in both covenants. It is in this regard that Adventism argues for covenant similarity while maintaining that there remain distinctions between the two.

Adventism and the Mosaic Covenant

Up to this point, we have only looked at one portion of Adventism’s middle view between the Westminster and the Second London: The relationship between the Abrahamic and New Covenant. In order to fully grasp this middle view we must also explore the Mosaic/ Old Covenant. According to Adventism, the Abrahamic covenant and New Covenant are the same Covenant of Grace (in an approximate sense, see the section “Adventism and Infant Baptism” above). However, the Mosaic Covenant is not the same as the Covenant of Grace. While it certainly communicates, advances, and points to the Covenant of Grace it is distinct. So then, what is the Mosaic Covenant?

In their bondage the people had to a great extent lost the knowledge of God and of the principles of the Abrahamic covenant…. Living in the midst of idolatry and corruption, they had no true conception of the holiness of God, of the exceeding sinfulness of their own hearts, their utter inability, in themselves, to render obedience to God’s law, and their need of a Saviour…. God brought them to Sinai; He manifested His glory; He gave them His law, with the promise of great blessings on condition of obedience…. (White, Ellen G. “From Eternity Past”, p. 25)

According to Adventism, the Mosaic Covenant was given because God’s people, the children of Abraham, had lost sight of His holiness and law. As a result, they had lost sight of their own sinfulness and depravity, for “without the law there is no knowledge of sin” (Rom. 4:15). Much like preachers today who emphasize man’s sinfulness in order to reveal our need for a Savior, God brought the Israelites under the Mosaic Covenant in order to reveal to them their utter inability and depravity. However, grace was not absent in this covenant. God gave them the sanctuary system by which they could be daily reminded of their need for a Savior. This sanctuary system pointed them back to the Adamic and Abrahamic promise and forward to the fulfillment of that promise in the Messiah.

The people did not realize … that without Christ it was impossible for them to keep God’s law…. Feeling that they were able to establish their own righteousness, they declared, “All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient.” (White, Ellen G. “Gods Amazing Grace”, p. 135)

Thus, the Old Covenant was brought into play in order to reveal man’s need for a Savior, and the ceremonial aspect was a more detailed depiction of the plan of salvation God gave to Adam and Abraham. Therefore, while Adventism sees the Adamic Covenant, the Abrahamic Covenant and the New Covenant as the Covenant of Grace, it does not see the Mosaic Covenant as the Covenant of Grace. Rather, it sees it as a Covenant of Works that revealed the need for the Covenant of Grace which was to be made official by the coming Messiah. Adventism does not teach that men were saved via this works covenant. Obedience to the covenant only resulted in temporal blessings, not in eternal life. Nevertheless, grace was typologically present in the covenant so that, as in the case of Abraham, the Israelites could put their faith in the coming one and be accounted righteous as well.

Eternal Covenant

Covenant of Grace

Old Testament

New Testament

Adamic Covenant

Abrahamic Covenant

 

(Mosaic/ Old Covenant)

←Abrahamic Covenant is still in effect→

New Covenant –

OT Covenants Fulfilled/ Canceled

He (Jesus) will crush your head (Satan) = Promise of deliverance

all peoples on earth will be blessed through you (Abram’s offspring – Jesus) = Promise of the savior

(Abrahamic Covenant forgotten. This do [law] and live… all the people said “everything the Lord has said we will do”. = Reveal man’s depravity and thus need for a Savior.)

(Promise of a savior revealed via ceremonies. Not Covenant of Grace.)

Adamic and Abrahamic Covenant promise fulfilled. Atonement complete.

Old/ Mosaic Covenant abrogated.

This difference alone is enough to show that Adventism understands and embraces a covenant distinction between the Old and New Covenants. However, it is not the only distinguishing factor inherent to this system. Another distinction lies in the very concept of making the covenant official.

Another compact [other than the Abrahamic covenant]—called in Scripture the “old” covenant—was formed between God and Israel at Sinai, and was then ratified [made official] by the blood of a sacrifice. The Abrahamic covenant was ratified by the blood of Christ, and it is called the “second”, or “new” covenant, because the blood by which it was sealed was shed after the blood of the first covenant. (White, Ellen G. “Gods Amazing Grace”, p. 135)

In other words, the Abrahamic (Second/ New Covenant) could only be made official by the blood of Jesus. Why? Because “the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, ‘In thee shall all nations be blessed'”(Gal. 3:8). This is the covenant of salvation by grace through faith which could only be made official through the blood of the “offspring” in which its promise rested. However, the Mosaic (Old) Covenant was made official daily by the blood of sacrifices (animals). This does not mean that men were saved via the death of these animals for they could not be (Heb. 10:4). But what it means is that so long as the people kept the law and sacrificed the animals, God would bless them. The Abrahamic/ New Covenant which promised salvation could never be ratified by the death of an animal. The only way justification could ever be granted was via the blood of Jesus (the promised offspring). According to Adventism, this is the biggest distinction between the Abrahamic and Old Covenant.

Abrahamic Covenant

Mosaic Covenant

  • Covenant of Grace
  • Promised Eternal Life
  • Blood of Jesus Needed to Ratify
  • Becomes the New Covenant Upon Jesus’ Death
  • Remains until the end
  • Covenant of Works
  • Promised Temporal Blessings
  • Sacrificial Offerings Sufficed to Ratify
  • Becomes the Old Covenant Upon Jesus’ Death
  • Forever Removed

And finally, in keeping with all other covenantal traditions Adventism teaches that the New Covenant is indeed founded on much better promises than the Old Covenant.

[The Israelites] had witnessed the proclamation of the law in awful majesty, and had trembled with terror before the mount; and yet only a few weeks passed before they broke their covenant with God, and bowed down to worship a graven image. They could not hope for the favor of God through a covenant which they had broken; and now, seeing their sinfulness and their need of pardon, they were brought to feel their need of the Saviour revealed in the Abrahamic covenant and shadowed forth in the sacrificial offerings. Now by faith and love they were bound to God as their deliverer from the bondage of sin. Now they were prepared to appreciate the blessings of the new covenant. The terms of the “old covenant” were, Obey and live: “If a man do, he shall even live in them” (Ezekiel 20:11; Leviticus 18:5); but “cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them” (Deuteronomy 27:26). The “new covenant” was established upon “better promises”—the promise of forgiveness of sins and of the grace of God to renew the heart and bring it into harmony with the principles of God’s law. The blessings of the new covenant are grounded purely on mercy in forgiving unrighteousness and sins…. (White, Ellen G. “Gods Amazing Grace”, p. 135-36)

Once again, the middle view of Adventism is that the Covenant of Grace and the Abrahamic covenant are the same covenant in an approximate sense. However, the Mosaic Covenant is not the same as the Covenant of Grace. While it certainly communicates, advances, and points to the Covenant of Grace, it is distinct. In that sense, Adventism falls between the Westminster (which teaches that all the OT Covenants were the same as the Covenant of Grace) and the Second London Covenant (which teaches that none of the OT Covenants were the same as the Covenant of Grace but merely typified it).

However, in practical terms one would note that Adventism’s view, while accurately described as a middle view, is actually no different from the view espoused by the Second London Covenant. It’s “middle view” is only necessary in a discussion over infant baptism which Adventism does not practice. Therefore, while the middle view exists, it can be excluded for the sake of simplicity and practicality. This places Adventism’s view on covenant continuity/ discontinuity in agreement with the Second London Baptist confession – the OT covenants merely typified the New Testament and there is thus, no continuity between them. This conclusion naturally leads to the big question on the law.

Adventism and the Law

At this juncture, the only remaining question is how does Adventism view the perpetuity of the law? Once again we find here a connection to both the Westminster and the Second London Covenants. Because different perspectives on this issue reside in Adventism, it is important to highlight the two views that exist.

Traditionalist Adventist View of the Law:

Those who tend toward a more traditional approach will argue for the perpetuity of the law in the same fashion as the Westminster Covenant. In other words, they will differentiate between the moral, ceremonial, and civil laws of the Mosaic Covenant. They will agree that the ceremonial and civil laws no longer apply but will argue for the perpetuity of the moral law which would include the Ten Commandments and any other moral law that can be sub-categorized under them. This would include the sexual laws, dietary laws, and stewardship laws. In other words, this camp will simply say that all Old Testament ceremonial laws have been abrogated. However, moral laws all remain – beginning with the Decalogue and down to other holiness laws. This view is not unique to traditional Adventism but is found in any denomination that not only hold to the perpetuity of the Ten Commandments but which also promote sexual purity, care for the body, and tithe return.

Progressive Adventist View of the Law:

The more progressive wing of Adventism holds to a different perspective which traces back to the 1888 General Conference in Minneapolis. During this conference, two preachers by the names of E.J. Waggoner and A.T. Jones united with Ellen White to emphasize the gospel. Jones and Waggoner argued against the traditional Adventist distinction of moral/ ceremonial law specifically in the book of Galatians5. According to Jones and Waggoner, Paul in Galatians was speaking of the entire Mosaic law not just the ceremonial law. In that sense, the Law as a whole was simply a “schoolmaster to bring us to Christ” (Gal. 3:24). Nevertheless, Jones and Waggoner did not deny the perpetuity of the Law and neither did Ellen White who supported their preaching. So how does Adventism hold to both the abrogation and perpetuity of the moral law at the same time?

The answer is quite simple and is very similar to the position held by the Second London: The law of God existed before the covenants and cannot be cancelled. According to Adventism the Eternal Covenant is based on the character of God which is love in its purest form. God created the universe in harmony with His character of love and, in doing so, the universe came to operate and function under the law of love. Thus Natural and Moral law are both based on the character of God. This is why nature “reveals the glory of God” (Psa. 19:1) as well as the Ten Commandments. They both point to the law of love as the law of design by which all of creation operates.

The Ten Commandments did not exist in Eden, or even in heaven, as they did in Sinai because there was no need. Everything operated according to the law of love. But we, nevertheless, see the outworking of the law of love in the commands God gave to Adam and Eve in Eden (to care for the garden, to enjoy the fruit of the trees, to rest on the Sabbath, to procreate, to not eat of the forbidden tree, etc.). Thus, Ellen White could say that the law, while eternal, “was adapted to the condition of holy beings”6 meaning, that  – while the law is eternal – it has not always looked like the Ten Commandments. In fact, in Eden the law does not take on the negative tone it does in Exodus. Instead, the law operated more in line with a gift than with a restriction. Thus, there was no such thing as “Thou shalt honor the Sabbath” in Eden. Rather, the Sabbath was simply given to man as a gift. This is partially rooted in the fact that the commands seen in Eden were applications of the eternal law of love to a sin-free world and the Ten Commandments are applications of that same law of love to a sinful world.

Because we are still in a sinful world, the Ten Commandments still apply. And because the Sabbath originated in a sin-free world the command to “remember” it, we believe, applies not only now in our sinful world, but will continue through eternity as a local application of the law of love for sin-free/ redeemed humanity. If Adventism holds to any abrogation of the moral law whatsoever it is the abrogation of the other nine commandments after the Second Coming, for at that time the law of love will once again be “adapted” to the context of holy beings (the redeemed). The Sabbath, however, having existed as an expression of the Law of Love prior to sin, does not need to be “adapted” for a post-sin world but can remain as a symbol of God’s creation and redemption of our world for all time.

After the transgression of Adam the principles of the law were … definitely arranged and expressed to meet man in his fallen condition.” (White, Ellen G. “Gods Amazing Grace”, p. 130)

When mankind fell into sin the law took on a more “dummy-proof” form. While “thou shalt not murder” was not needed in Eden, it was needed in a post-fall world where selfishness had taken charge as the operating principle of human beings. Thus, the law was “adapted” to “meet the conditions.” It was still the law of love but contextualized to fallen man’s need. Had there been no law, God could not have judged sin, for “by law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). Thus the law of God existed prior to the Mosaic Covenant, especially the Sabbath, which existed prior to sin. 

Eternal Law of Love

Love God           ⟷        Love Man

Eden earth

Sinful earth

Renewed Earth

  • Care for the Garden
  • Procreate
  • Rest on Sabbath
  • Enjoy the fruit of the trees
  • Do not eat from the forbidden tree.
  • Ten Commandments
  • Law of love further contextualized for various conditions that only exist on sinful earth
  • Principles of love continue to inform how believers should act in diverse circumstances
  • Care for the earth
  • Rest on Sabbath
  • Enjoy the fruit of the trees
  • Laws relevant only in sinful context made redundant

By the time of Sinai, the commands are already known to one degree or another as local applications of the eternal law of love. However, under the Mosaic Covenant, the law becomes the means by which man gains and retains blessings from God and is understood to offer eternal life to anyone who can keep it perfectly – a sheer impossibility designed to reveal man’s need for a Savior.

Under the New Covenant, however, the law of Moses (moral/ ceremonial/ civil) is abrogated. However, because the law of love transcends the Mosaic Covenant it can never be abrogated. The local application of that law, which includes the Sabbath, remains as relevant to all New Covenant believers – not as a means of justification or sanctification – but as a result of being justified and sanctified by the Spirit of God. The Law is written in the human heart and becomes a part of who we are, placing us in harmony with God’s character of love. Thus, under the New Covenant, Adventism does not make a case for moral vs ceremonial law, but it does argue for the perpetuity of God’s law based on the perpetuity of God’s love, of which the Ten Commandments are a local application.

New Covenant believers are not “under the law” but under grace which places them – not at odds with the law – but in a harmonious relationship with the Law of God. The same is true of all the moral laws in the Old Testamet, including sexual, health, and stewardship laws7. This position is in harmony with the Reformation view that “the imparted and imputed righteousness of Christ are essential elements of the gospel, and that good works are the natural outflow of genuine faith.”

There are two errors against which the children of God—particularly those who have just come to trust in His grace—especially need to guard. The first … is that of looking to their own works, trusting to anything they can do, to bring themselves into harmony with God. He who is trying to become holy by his own works in keeping the law, is attempting an impossibility…. The opposite and no less dangerous error is, that belief in Christ releases men from keeping the law of God; that since by faith alone we become partakers of the grace of Christ, our works have nothing to do with our redemption…. If the law is written in the heart, will it not shape the life? … Instead of releasing man from obedience, it is faith, and faith only, that makes us partakers of the grace of Christ, which enables us to render obedience…. (White, Ellen G. “Gods Amazing Grace”, p. 138)

As a result, Adventism is in agreement with the covenantal thought expressed in “Category A: Covenantalism” in that it continues to affirm the perpetuity of the law. 

Israel/ Church Relationship:

Adventism teaches that the church has always existed. In the Old Testament, Adventism sees a distinction between physical Israel and spiritual Israel. Physical Israel was composed only of those who were descendants of Abraham. Spiritual Israel was composed of all, whether Jew or pagan, who worshiped the true God. Thus, Adventism holds that the church has always existed in Spiritual Israel and is, not its replacement, but its continuation. Consequently, Adventism sees one redemptive plan for all time and one nation of God that began in Abraham and continues with the children of faith in the church. In addition, it sees one law of love, adapted to one humanity, relevant for eternity. As a result, it sees national Israel as playing no specific role in end time events.8 However, Spiritual Israel – which is the church – plays a central role. This view is essentially the same as the view espoused by the Second London Confession.

End Time Events: 

Adventism holds to a Historicist method for interpreting apocalyptic prophecy.9 This method puts it in agreement with views such as the visible, bodily return of Jesus at the end of the age, the bodily resurrection of the just and unjust for judgment, eternal death for the wicked, and eternal life for the redeemed. Adventism also continues to regard the papal dynasty as the anti-Christ. Outside of these points of agreement, Adventism rejects the Futurism of Dispensational theology and denies concepts such as the secret rapture.10 However, it also rejects the Amillennialism of contemporary Covenantalism which holds to a Preterist method for interpreting prophecy. By continuing to adhere to Historicism as the method for understanding Bible prophecy, Adventism is in harmony with Classic Covenantalism. Adventism also holds to annihilationism with regards to the eternal fate of the wicked.11

Other: 

In closing, here are some brief mentions of other elements inherent to Adventism. 1) Sign of the New Covenant is baptism. 2) Immersion is the only acceptable method of baptism. 3) Partial continuation of spiritual gifts until the end of time. 4) Separation of church and state. 5) Lord’s Supper as an act of remembrance and communion with God.

Closing Thoughts

Now that we have aligned Adventist theology with a covenantal framework, it is apparent that it most closely aligns with Category A – specifically the Second London Confession which is the Covenantal framework of the Reformed Baptist denominations. While unique features also emerge which don’t fit into any existing system the areas of agreement are impressive. Below, I have added a new chart of covenantal thought that includes Adventism (I have underlined all of the points that are in agreement in each system with Adventism. Notice that apart from a few exceptions, Adventism and the Second London Confession are practically the same).

So how does identifying the place of Adventism in covenant thought help the church and its mission? Here are three major ways:

1) It demonstrates that Adventist theology was not born in a vacuum and is not some strange and unheard of heresy.

Instead, it can be rightly understood as an Arminian-Federalist (another word for Second London Confession) view of redemptive history. In addition, this also demonstrates that Adventism’s view of the covenants, perpetuity of the law, and Sabbath-keeping is in fundamental harmony with what many of the Reformers believed and is more in line with classical Protestant thought. This gives us a strong defense against those who would accuse us of being “Old-Covenant Christians,” legalists or of holding to an unheard of covenant theology.

2) It enables our faith to be more easily understood and intelligently critiqued.

For many decades Adventists have been labeled as legalists for our belief in a perpetual law and Sabbatarianism. However, what is apparent is that such critics are not really attacking Adventism but Covenantalism. Although we may disagree on the particular day that Sabbath is, Adventism, the Westminster Confession, and Second London Confession all agree in the perpetuity of the law, including the command to honor the Sabbath day. Those who wish to label us legalists for this belief must also label many of the Reformers as legalists, for Covenantalism was the prevailing view until the arrival of Dispensationalism in the 1840’s. Thus, in debates over the perpetuity of the law, Adventists should first seek to discover if their opponent adheres to Dispensationalism, New Covenant Theology or a modified version of Covenantalism which leans toward these views. It makes no sense to debate the Sabbath if our opponent holds to a systematic view of redemptive history that belongs in Category B. In such a scenario, debating the Sabbath is premature.

3) It enables us to more intelligently communicate our narrative to the rest of the Christian world.

A perfect example of this is, once again, the Sabbath. When Adventism first emerged it embraced the seventh-day Sabbath doctrine after a Seventh-Day Baptist introduced it to our forefathers. As Adventists began preaching the perpetuity of the law and Sabbath, the vast majority of their audience were Covenantalists who were already Sabbatarians (Dispensationalism had only just begun to rise in popularity and New Covenant Theology did not yet exist). In many ways, Adventism’s only contention was to demonstrate the absence of “transfer” from Saturday to Sunday in Scripture and then to trace the history of this transfer and its implications. However, the same is not true today. With the arrival of Dispensationalism and New Covenant Theology, the entire Law is no longer regarded as perpetual – including the Sabbath. Speaking of the absence of transfer or the change as originating in the medieval church is entirely irrelevant to an audience who regards the topic as an unnecessary distraction. Thus, our language, presentation, and even understanding of the relevance of Sabbath must be contextualized to these differing views if we wish to be understood. However, many Adventists continue to preach and teach the Sabbath as though our audience were Covenantalists-Sabbatarians whose only point of distinction was a first day Sabbath as opposed to the seventh-day Sabbath. Today, for the most part, our audience is either Dispensationalist, New Covenant Theology, or highly influenced by these views. Thus, to speak of a “transfer” of day or of the “perpetuity of the law” without an understanding and appreciation of these systematic differences will get us nowhere.

In conclusion, I would like to propose that the question, “Are Adventists Old-Covenant Christians?” has been thoroughly answered. We are not “Old-Covenant” Christians. We are Protestants who hold to an understanding of Covenant theology that is in keeping with the Historic Protestant view known as “Covenantalism”. In the next post we will examine this in greater depth.


Footnotes:
  1. See Are Adventists Old-Covenant Christians? (part 2) and Are Adventists Old-Covenant Christians? (part 3)
  2. Whidden, Woodrow W. “Adventist Theology: The Wesleyan Connection.”
  3. Holcomb, Justin. “Five Points from the Past that Should Matter to You.”
  4. White, Ellen G. “From Eternity Past,” p. 259
  5. Bert, Merlin. “The Faith of Jesus: The Doctrinal Legacy of 1888”, http://archives.adventistreview.org/article/6698/archives/issue-2013-1528/the-faith-of-jesus
  6.  White, Ellen G. “Gods Amazing Grace”, p. 132
  7. The difference, however, is that, because the Mosaic Covenant is no longer in effect, New Covenant believers do not go to the Mosaic Covenant to figure out how to keep the Sabbath, for example. While we may go to the Mosaic Covenant to inform us, we are not bound to keep the Sabbath exactly as it is delineated in the Mosaic Covenant, because the Law has been released from that context. This is why critics who say Adventists should keep all of the hundreds of Sabbath laws to be found in the OT if they want to be consistent are wrong. Those laws may inform contemporary application but they do not dictate how we keep the Sabbath. As in the case with the Second London, this forms the basis for why we do not stone Sabbath breakers to death, among other discontinuities.
  8. see: Hasel, Gerhard F. “The Role of Israel,” and: “The Theology of Ellen G. White.”
  9. LaRondelle, Hans K. “The Heart of Historicism.” 
  10. Shea, William H. “Making Sense of Bible Prophecy: A Birds-Eye View of the Concepts and the Issues.”
  11.  Mueller, Ekkehardt. “God and Hell.”
Amen!(4)

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