When the Sabbath met grace

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At a conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, in 1888, Seventh-day Adventist Church leaders argued passionately about the role of law and grace from a biblical perspective. 

A couple of “young gun” pastors, EJ Waggoner and AT Jones, were pushing salvation through faith in Christ’s righteousness and arguing against the accepted understanding the Church had of the law in the New Testament. Many senior pastors and church leaders strongly opposed these presentations.

The presentations also challenged the Church’s approach and witness to the broader community. During the centenary celebrations of this conference (1988), Robert W Olsen helped us understand the situation when he wrote: “Most Adventist converts had come from other Christian churches, and their acceptance of Christ was taken for granted. Adventist ministers preached much more about the law and the Sabbath than about Christ.” 

He added that Adventist ministers “became skilled debaters who prided themselves on their ability to out-argue their Sunday-keeping counterparts. Waggoner and Jones’s sermons were different. They concentrated on Christ—His deity, His humanity and His righteousness, which He offers to us as a gift.”1

The Protestant—and biblical—doctrine of salvation by faith through the grace of God barely featured among Adventists at the time. What a tragedy! Unfortunately, in looking back we recognise now that while Joseph Bates, who almost single-handedly brought the Sabbath into Adventism, “could make what appeared to be gospel statements, his basic approach was legalistic—that salvation came through the keeping of the law”2and that included keeping the Sabbath. 

Fortunately, the Minneapolis conference led us into a different direction. First, these meetings impacted on several who attended and then, in the long-term, grace took its proper place within Adventist teachings.

Among those attending, WC White, Ellen and James White’s son, called Waggoner’s sermons a turning point in his life. CC McReynolds reported that after the fourth or fifth presentation, he had become a “subdued, repenting sinner”. 

McReynolds went out of the city into the woods and spent an afternoon on his knees, with his Bible. “I had come to the point that I did believe the promises of God in His Word for forgiveness of my sins, and that it did mean me as well as any other sinner.” 

AO Tait reported that while a number of leaders did not see “light” in the message, it has been “coming to us as a flood of blessing ever since. . . . I found that doctrine just the food that my poor soul needed. . . . I was converted at that meeting and have been rejoicing in the light of it ever since.”3

And joy is what C Mervyn Maxwell emphasised when reflecting on the conference. “What joy to be accepted by Jesus—not with a limp handshake, but with arms open wide. What joy to be forgiven—by the mighty Judge Himself. . . . What joy to know Jesus whom to know aright is life eternal.”4

So, where is the Sabbath and grace connection? When grace is understood, it makes a difference to how you see things. After the conference, “some Adventists writing about keeping Sabbath exhibited a clear, gospel-oriented tone”.5  And Sabbath joy became more of a theme.  

For instance, in 1895, GD Ballou wrote of how God and all of heaven rejoiced on the first Sabbath day “in the finished work of creation. That set an “example of rejoicing in it”. After all, the Sabbath is a gift of grace for all who will accept it.

Ballou added that this helps us “better appreciate what God means when He says, ‘If thou turn not away thy foot from the Sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the Sabbath a delight, . . . then thou shalt delight thyself in the Lord?’ This takes the Pharisaic rigor and Puritanic gloominess out of the Sabbath.”6

That last sentence is important because it recognises the reality of the oppressive nature of the experience of the Sunday Sabbath these early Adventists had brought into their experience of Saturday Sabbath. Grace helped them not only to view God differently, but the Sabbath as well. 

Ellen White, “in looking back at the 1888 meetings, would claim that the essence of the third angel’s message was ‘faith in the ability of Christ to save us amply and fully and entirely’”.7

On another occasion, she wrote of the need for “justification by faith” and “the gospel of His grace” to be preached so “the world should no longer say that Seventh-day Adventists talk the law, the law, but do not teach or believe Christ”.8

The Sabbath came to be seen more as a gift than a command. And in the Deuteronomy rendering of the Ten Commandments, the Sabbath is connected to freedom. Chris Blake reminds us that “God proclaims Sabbath as a day of liberation.”9 That’s liberation for the former slaves standing before Mount Sinai (Deuteronomy 5:15). And liberation for we who recognise each Sabbath as a gift from God. For the Sabbath is a weekly gift of grace with Jesus as its Lord (Mark 2:28).

Find out more at https://www.adventist.org/the-sabbath/.

  1. Robert W Olson, “1888—issues, outcomes, lessons“, Ministry, February, 1988, ministrymagazine.org/archive/1988/02/1888-issues-outcomes-lessons.
  2. George Knight, Joseph Bates, The Real Founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Review and Herald Publishing Association, Hagerstown, MD, 2004, page 88.
  3. Robert W Olson, Ibid.
  4. C Mervyn Maxwell, “What is the 1888 message,” Ministry, February, 1988, <ministrymagazine.org/archive/1988/02/what-is-the-1888-message>.
  5. May Ellen Colón, op cit, page 28.
  6. G D Ballou, “‘Bless’ and ‘Blessed,’” Adventist Review and Sabbath Herald, October 1, 1895, pages 627, 628.
  7. Cited George Knight, op cit, page 87 
  8. Ibid.
  9. Chris Blake, Searching for a God to Love, Pacific Press Publishing Association, Nampa Idaho, 1999, page 226.

Dr Bruce Manners is an author, retired pastor and former editor of Signs of the Times and Adventist Record.

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