All through Scripture, fulfillment of divine promises involves waiting.
Jo Ann Davidson
The last century has witnessed an ever-deepening loss of belief in God, the authority of Scripture, and the church. There has also been a loss of confidence in modern secular ideologies, such as belief in progress, government, politics, and the Enlightenment’s ideas of “salvation” (humanity solving any and all problems, given enough time). There is little conviction of any life beyond the here and now, with heaven and eternal life dismissed as childish illusions.
Biblical writers, however, present a very different perspective: God is in the shadows, moving human history toward His promise to end the evil dragon’s reign and make “‘all things new’” (Rev. 21:5). Scripture opens in Genesis, chapters 1 to 11, by presenting a historical beginning of this world along with a worldwide flood. On that basis, later biblical writers traced a literal end of this present sinful world with God’s righteous kingdom restored.
Biblical prophecies point to major future cosmic events, including judgment and the second coming of Christ—aspects of God’s final, definitive acts toward this world. There will be no uninvolved spectators at that time, for the entire world will be affected. The seriousness of the endtime is not avoided in Scripture because the final, decisive remedy is certain. Biblical writers also nail down prophecy with their often-repeated, spine-tingling “Thus says the Lord.” For God Himself insists, “‘As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there without watering the earth and making it bear and sprout, and furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; so will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; it will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it’” (Isa. 55:10, 11, NASB, italics supplied).
Because “last things” center on the second coming of Jesus, attention to them has always been a paramount Seventh-day Adventist concern; it’s why we call ourselves “Adventists.” This belief is not based on futuristic human constructions, for various biblical writers point to the second advent of Jesus. For example, “According to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13, NASB). Even though human promises and hopes are often disappointing, the prophets insist that both the content and certainty of biblical prophecies can be trusted.
Bible writers do warn against trying to peer into the future. But their concern is always about the source: “‘Give no regard to mediums and familiar spirits; do not seek after them, to be defiled by them: I am the Lord your God’” (Lev. 19:31). And God explains why: “Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, and He who formed you from the womb: ‘I am the Lord, who makes all things, Who stretches out the heavens all alone, Who spreads abroad the earth by Myself; Who frustrates the signs of the babblers, and drives diviners mad; Who turns wise men backward, and makes their knowledge foolishness; Who confirms the word of His servant, and performs the counsel of His messengers’” (Isa. 44:24–26).
Any study of the future must be grounded in God’s Word. He is the only One who can guarantee that “none of His words fall to the ground” (1 Sam. 3:19). Furthermore, in spite of the claims of modern “open theism,” God insists that foretelling the future is proof of His divinity: “‘Present your case,’ the Lord says. ‘Bring forward your strong arguments,’ The King of Jacob says. Let them bring forth and declare to us what is going to take place; as for the former events, declare what they were, that we may consider them and know their outcome. Or announce to us what is coming; declare the things that are going to come afterward, that we may know that you are gods” (Isa. 41:21–23, NASB). “‘Remember the former things long past, for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, “My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure”; . . . Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it, surely I will do it’” (46:9–11, NASB, italics supplied).
Divine prediction of the future is not the counterpart of secular fortune-telling. It never deals with whom one should marry or what job one should take or who the next president will be. In the Bible, peering into the future is never to satisfy idle curiosity. Divine prediction always deals with the very core of human existence—confrontation with Jesus Christ, who came once as Savior and who will “appear a second time” (Heb. 9;28) as “King of kings” (Rev. 17:14). This second appearance will be the climax of human history and distinguishes the event from secular futurism. Christian expectation is not directed to various unrelated or mystical events in the future. It is directed to Jesus Himself.
In the end, everything will be open before the throne of God and of the Lamb. Life will be revealed as it really is, exposing all human deceptions. There will be no more justification of persecution and torture in God’s name—as Jesus foretold would happen (John 16:2). All excuses and all motives will be known. Life as it actually happened will be disclosed. In the meantime, we are urged by the apostle Paul to be “alert and sober” (1 Thess. 5:6, NASB), with keen spiritual insight and our minds girded up.
But we are still here! And our Christian expectation is sometimes taunted, because Jesus hasn’t come yet. After all, He did say some two thousand years ago, “‘Behold, I am coming quickly’” (Rev. 22:7).
Contemporary Thinking About Eschatology
Because of all the time that has elapsed since Jesus promised to come quickly, some Christians since the 19th century have offered alternative explanations:
Some have argued that God’s kingdom is already appearing, being achieved through human genius as life’s problems are resolved. It is assumed, with evolutionary optimism, that all disease will eventually be conquered and political cooperation will end all wars, and the human condition will continue to improve.
Others have decided that the New Testament teaches that there would be only a short time between Christ’s resurrection and His second coming and that any eschatology must be consistent with what has actually transpired. Thus, many centuries later, the New Testament must be outdated and completely wrong.
Yet others have suggested that perhaps the Second Coming already occurred at Christ’s resurrection when the earth shook, rocks split, tombs opened, and the bodies of saints were raised (Matt. 27:51–53). Since the cosmic Second Coming has not occurred, the gripping supernatural events of the Resurrection are suggested as having marked the “end.”
Some have argued for a “timeless endtime,” seeing the Second Coming as a symbol of the unending seriousness of every moment of life. There will be no dramatic climax of history, no literal cosmic event. Instead, a decisive moment will come individually for each person with a crucial crisis marking the gravity of God’s presence.
Presently, many Christians have determined that Christ’s promise to come again has failed, calling for various reinterpretations of His words—anything but a literal, global event.
But this is a dangerous way to think, for connecting the Second Coming to literal salvation acts that have already occurred rejects what the Bible writers have written so explicitly and authoritatively. God is the Lord of history, and He sovereignly promises an actual glorious cosmic event. Modern reinterpretations of biblical prophecies deprive Christ of His glory!
Perhaps the faith of earlier believers wasn’t threatened when Jesus didn’t return immediately because they recalled God’s former acts in history. All through Scripture, fulfillment of divine promises involves waiting.
Delay in the Old Testament
● Eve thought the promise of Genesis 3 was to be fulfilled in her firstborn son. “The Saviour’s coming was foretold in Eden. When Adam and Eve first heard the promise, they looked for its speedy fulfillment. They joyfully welcomed their first-born son, hoping that he might be the Deliverer. But the fulfillment of the promise tarried.”2
● Enoch prophesied divine judgment and the coming of Christ, which didn’t happen in his lifetime (Jude 14, 15).
● The patriarch Job, in the midst of extreme suffering, looked to the future with hope: “‘For I know that my Redeemer lives, and He shall stand at last on the earth; and after my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God, Whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!’” (Job 19:25–27).
● Noah, having never seen rain, warned about a coming flood for 120 years. He was called a fanatic and ridiculed by the scientists of the day. Moreover, after entering the ark, he waited another seven days for the rain to begin, further testing his faith.
● Abraham and Sarah waited until he was a hundred years old and she was 90 for the first of his promised heirs that were to be “‘as numerous as the stars in the sky” (Gen. 22:17, NIV). Yet Abraham died believing the promise.
● Abraham was also told that his progeny would have to endure slavery and wait to be delivered until the iniquity of the Amorites was full (Gen. 15:13–16). The Exodus was delayed until probation granted to the Amorites ended.
● The children of Israel, forced into slavery in Egypt, yearned for deliverance for hundreds of years, and “because of the bondage . . . they cried out” and waited for emancipation (Ex. 2:23).
● Many of the hymns Israel sang in worship begged God for help: “I will say unto God my rock, Why hast thou forgotten me? why go I mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” (Ps. 42:9, KJV). “How long will the enemy mock you, O God? Will the foe revile your name forever? Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand?” (Ps. 74:10, 11, NIV).
Their “how long” pleas point to a passing of time that is troubling: “How long, Lord? Will You hide Yourself forever? Will Your wrath burn like fire? Remember how short my time is; for what futility have You created all the children of men? What man can live and not see death? Can he deliver his life from the power of the grave? Selah. Lord, where are Your former lovingkindnesses, which You swore to David in Your truth?” (Ps. 89:46–49).
● In the Book of Isaiah, the question is asked, “‘Watchman, what of the night?’” (21:11).
“The watchman said, ‘The morning comes, and also the night’” (vs. 12). The answer implies that having to live with delay must not be interpreted as God failing to keep His promise.
● God also addressed Israel’s yearning for deliverance from their Babylonian captivity through His words to Ezekiel: “And the word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘Son of man, what is this proverb that you people have about the land of Israel, which says, “The days are prolonged, and every vision fails”? Tell them therefore, “Thus says the Lord God: ‘I will lay this proverb to rest, and they shall no more use it as a proverb in Israel.’ But say to them, ‘The days are at hand, and the fulfillment of every vision. For no more shall there be any false vision or flattering divination within the house of Israel. For I am the Lord. I speak, and the word which I speak will come to pass; it will no more be postponed; for in your days, O rebellious house, I will say the word and perform it,” says the Lord God’” (Eze. 12:21–25, italics supplied).
Decades in captivity had passed without deliverance, which led to doubting, to which the Lord responded that none of His words would be delayed any longer (vs. 28). Critics may contend that delay implies failure of the divine promises, but God insists differently.
● After his dramatic visions of the future, Daniel was told he must wait: “‘You, go your way till the end; for you shall rest, and will arise . . . at the end of the days’” (Dan. 12:13).
● Habakkuk felt despair over never-ending violence: “O Lord, how long shall I cry, and You will not hear? Even cry out to You, ‘Violence!’ And You will not save” (Hab. 1:2), to which Yahweh answered: “‘Write the vision and make it plain on tablets, that he may run who reads it. For the vision is yet for an appointed time; but at the end it will speak, and it will not lie. Though it tarries, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry’” (2:2, 3, italics supplied).
● God explained to His petulant prophet Jonah the reason for His deferred judgment on the violent Ninevites: “‘Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?’” (Jonah 4:11). He desired to extend grace to both the immoral Ninevites and their innocent animals.
New Testament “Waiting”
● Both Martha and Mary told Jesus after their brother Lazarus died, “‘If You had been here, my brother would not have died’” (John 11:21, 32). Jesus did not come at once at their urgent request. He waited and then performed a greater miracle.
● The parable of the wedding party that sleeps because of the delay of the bridegroom (Matthew 25) suggests an unforeseen passing of time before the wedding. Notably, Jesus gives this “parable of delay” immediately after discussing the future destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world (Matthew 24).
● All during Christ’s earthly ministry, the disciples kept thinking Jesus would shortly establish His kingdom. Their overpowering disappointment at His crucifixion changed only after Christ’s resurrection.
● After Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit, Peter preached in terms of what was “afar off” when the church began its work between Christ’s two advents (Acts 2:39). The pouring out of the Holy Spirit did not mean rejecting belief in the Second Coming. Instead, the persecuted first-century followers of Jesus were included in God’s promises to the patriarchs in Hebrews 11: “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (12:1, italics supplied). All believers will share the same glorious destiny, for “none of them [in the Old Testament] received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect” (11:39, 40, NIV).
Nowhere in the New Testament is there any suggestion that belief in the Second Coming should be jettisoned. There are indicators that Christ’s coming had been expected soon, which caused Paul to counsel the Thessalonians that certain things must happen first (2 Thess. 2:1–12). But faith in God’s promises was never lost, nor was expectation muffled. The literal death and resurrection of Christ buoyed up the believers’ optimism and assured glorious prospects for the future.
● There were those who scoffed at the second coming of Jesus: “‘Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation’” (2 Peter 3:4). Jude also describes “mockers” (vs. 18) in the last time who display haughty certainty in their supposedly irrefutable arguments.
But believers were counseled to beware of such attitudes (2 Peter 3:1, 8, 14, 17). Scoffing reflects a false philosophy of history. Bible writers confront such skeptical understandings and reject the scoffers’ illegitimate interpretations. The continuous duration of time is not any kind of divine failure; instead, it is evidence of God’s patience. He has promised that evil will never rise again. And He can do this because He will have permitted sin and all its deadly results to be fully displayed, which will leave no sympathy for it anymore. Biblical promises concerning the future are emphatic and based on God’s great mercy: “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:8, 9, NRSV; italics supplied). The continuity of time is never evidence of false prophecy. Believers can anticipate Christ’s return with all earnestness and diligence, for divine promises are certain.
Human existence is a mere “day that has just gone by” (Ps. 90:4) compared to God’s eternity. We cannot possibly evaluate time from His infinite perspective. God hints at this through the numerous ways of measuring time found in His creation: a fly or a mosquito lives to the ripe old age of three weeks (if not swatted sooner); 10 to 15 years is considered a full age for domesticated cats and dogs; Jewish tradition points to the divine design of the retina, which receives an upside-down picture of what is seen, to remind us that what is being seen is not the full and correct picture.
● The apostle Paul instructed the Thessalonians that a series of events must take place prior to Jesus’ return (2 Thess. 2:1–12).
● The Book of Revelation intimates passing of time. For example, the vision of the “souls under the altar”: “And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held: and they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellowservants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled” (Rev. 6:9–11, KJV, italics supplied).
Notably, from Genesis to Revelation, there is no call to calculate the exact date for the second coming of Christ. Rather, there is an urgent attentive watching for it, as Jesus invites, “‘Let your waist be girded and your lamps burning; and you yourselves be like men who wait for their master, when he will return from the wedding, that when he comes and knocks they may open to him immediately’” (Luke 12:35, 36). This attitude is contrasted with that of the unfaithful servant who says to himself, “‘My master is delaying his coming’” (vs. 45), and so does not bother to get ready. Although he knows what to do, he is unprepared for his master’s arrival.
Ever since the closing of the 2300-day prophecy of Daniel 8, date setting is not possible, yet Christ’s coming should not be unexpected, which gets to the heart of the issue. Jesus declared, “‘If you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you’” (Rev. 3:3). Suddenness will not be a problem for those who have earnestly anticipated the Lord’s return, as Paul wrote to the Thessalonians: “But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief” (1 Thess. 5:4, NRSV). It does demand constant vigilance and preparation. The danger lies in being careless or forgetful. Jesus referred to this, speaking of those destroyed by the Flood that they were without watchfulness “and knew not until the flood came, and took them all away” (Matt. 24:39, KJV). In fact, the word regularly translated “quickly” would be more fairly translated “suddenly.”
As we wait for the Second Coming, we can become pessimists, doubting the Word of God and suggesting false interpretations of His promises. Or we can settle into denial with the scoffers who think heaven is an illusion. But the sentiment of Scripture is very different: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted And every mountain and hill brought low; the crooked places shall be made straight and the rough places smooth; the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken’” (Isa. 40:3–5).
This is a royal announcement heralding the arriving King. The composer Handel was challenged to write music to these glorious words. Other hymn writers also wanted to exalt the Second Coming: “Lift up the trumpet, and loud let it ring! Jesus is coming again!” “Lo, He comes, with clouds descending!” “Wake, awake, for night is flying,” and “Watch, ye saints, with eyelids waking!”
The Other Side of the Coin
While we wait, we must not fall into another mistaken notion: thinking that the timing of the Second Coming is dependent on our reaching some standard of perfection:
There are those who argue that Jesus has not yet returned because of His less-than-perfect followers—that if only there had been more concentrated human efforts on reaching perfection, Jesus would have come by now. This position is often linked to a quotation from Ellen G. White: “When the character of Christ shall be perfectly reproduced in His people, then He will come to claim them as His own.”3
Others suggest that Christ could have come earlier if believers had been more diligent in carrying out the divine commission of witnessing—that because we haven’t, the “delay” continues.
But these perspectives do not manifest an adequate understanding of Scripture or of Ellen G. White. Will there ever be a time when we will be good enough for Jesus to come? This is a critical issue.
A fundamental principle for interpreting Scripture (and for interpreting Ellen G. White, who constantly turns us to Scripture) needs to be reviewed. The Old and New Testaments are a complete system of truth. Thus, the entire canon must be carefully studied to understand correctly what it actually teaches. In this case, understanding what it means to be ready when Jesus returns must be informed by more than one text and/or quotation.
For example, the Old Testament highlights Moses as a lawgiver, the spokesperson for God. He received, wrote down, taught, applied, and expounded God’s law, often repeating God’s call for commitment to His law. And Moses was fully aware of the dangers of legalism and hypocrisy. His great desire was that Israel might come to know the grace and love of God by the circumcision of the heart (Deut. 30:6) and that by responding to His grace, they would keep His commands (vs. 10). By means of the law, they could get a correct sense of what sin was and, by asking for forgiveness, become a people privileged to enjoy God’s holy presence. The law was a gift of God (Rom. 9:4) and a positive means of instructing His children how to abide in His presence (Lev. 26:11–13). But believers always need to be covered by Christ’s righteousness. No one can ever be good enough to be saved, as the opening words of the Decalogue underscore: “And God spoke all these words, saying: ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me’” (Ex. 20:1–3).
Obedience to the law has never been the way to earn salvation. God states at the outset of the Decalogue that He is first a Savior and Deliverer from slavery! First, He saved Israel from Egypt, and then He spoke His law to them. This sequence is significant.
There on Mount Sinai God covenanted Himself to a certain group of people—people who had not distinguished themselves by being good and faithful. But Yahweh chose them, which had nothing to do with any of their spiritual attainments. The opposite is true. They were selected in spite of themselves; for if there is one thing noticeable about the children of Israel, it is that they did not deserve their election, even falling into deep apostasy just after their covenant with God had been established at Mount Sinai.
The great apostle Paul also insisted that the only reason anyone can be saved is because God, in His bountiful grace, declares that the person is righteous through Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:23, 24). Paul’s endless thankfulness for God’s grace is a lesson many Christians need to learn, enabling believers to come a long way toward truly appreciating the gospel.
When Paul insists, “there is no distinction” (10:12), he means that before God there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile, godly and ungodly, believer and pagan, “good guys” and “bad guys.” All are in bondage to the power of sin. Being “religious” does not do any good, nor does being “spiritual.” Paul is clear: There is nothing we can do about our sinful nature; we cannot free ourselves from its imprisoning grip. Romans 7 carefully spells this out; as that great evangelist Paul concludes, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (vs. 24). Repentance is a sign of the Holy Spirit at work in us, convicting us of sin so that we can repent and find and accept God’s amazing grace.
Every one of us is a condemned sinner until Jesus comes. Because sin is very blinding, this crucial insight does not come easily. We need to look unblinkingly at sin and its power even in the lives of “good” Christians, for even our very best is tainted by sin. All of us, even the most fervent believers, will ever need the justifying grace that God offers to sinners: “But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; we all fade as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away” (Isa. 64:6; italics supplied).
Martin Luther understood this, stating that we need to repent even for our good deeds. This is not easy to admit. All of us, even “good” Christians, participate to one degree or another in some form of denial, keeping consciousness of our sinfulness at bay. The true blunder is to fail to recognize this. The truly tragic person is not the one who commits a crime or causes harm to others. The truly tragic person is the “good” person who finds it hard to acknowledge that even our good deeds need forgiveness because of what Ellen G. White terms our “corrupt channels of humanity”: “The religious services, the prayers, the praise, the penitent confession of sin ascend from true believers as incense to the heavenly sanctuary, but passing through the corrupt channels of humanity, they are so defiled that unless purified by blood, they can never be of value with God. They ascend not in spotless purity, and unless the Intercessor, who is at God's right hand, presents and purifies all by His righteousness, it is not acceptable to God. All incense from earthly tabernacles must be moist with the cleansing drops of the blood of Christ. He holds before the Father the censer of His own merits, in which there is no taint of earthly corruption. He gathers into this censer the prayers, the praise, and the confessions of His people, and with these He puts His own spotless righteousness. Then, perfumed with the merits of Christ's propitiation, the incense comes up before God wholly and entirely acceptable. Then gracious answers are returned. Oh, that all may see that everything in obedience, in penitence, in praise and thanksgiving, must be placed upon the glowing fire of the righteousness of Christ. The fragrance of this righteousness ascends like a cloud around the mercy seat.”4
Paul used the word justification more often than the word forgiveness, meaning that we sinners will not only be forgiven, we will also be justified—declared righteous by God! Because of the sacrifice of Jesus, who took the sentence of our condemnation upon Himself, grace is bestowed on us. This is the grand news of the Christian faith. Connected with the grace we receive will come the discovery that we are among those who have not only been forgiven but also reckoned righteous by God through faith in Jesus. There is not one of us who can claim any sort of special merit for who we are or what we do. Rather, we are part of the worldwide human family of sinners who daily need to rediscover our utter dependence on the faithfulness and mercy of God. One hymn writer caught this biblical teaching: “Just as I am, without one plea, but that Thy blood was shed for me, and that Thou bid’st me come to Thee . . . .”
This means that we need to understand that we are not just those who commit a little error here and a minor mistake there. No. All of us are fully embedded in a world of ungodliness. We are not innocent bystanders to the sinfulness of the human race. If we aren’t aware of the degree to which sin undermines even the most noble of our efforts, we will find ourselves in a type of self-righteousness and will not even notice that we continue to fail God and people and need to repent. We will never be able to hold up our characters and our good deeds as something to be proud of. None of us will ever be able to claim to be an heir of His promises as a reward for our righteousness.
The biblical narratives of those who followed God clearly illustrate this. Notice the statement about Abraham: “He believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6, NRSV). At that time, Abraham was 85 years old. Fourteen years before his circumcision, Abraham was “reckoned” righteous by God! After that, he deliberately deceived Abimelech. This helps us to understand the maturing process of sanctification. Even Abraham, who is noticeably highlighted in the “Faith Hall of Fame” of Hebrews 11, could never claim perfection. He was constantly growing in his relationship with God.
And God expects from those who walk with Him nothing less than He expected from Enoch, Noah, and Abraham—namely, perfection. God’s standard of righteousness is not lowered as sanctification continues. The meaning of perfect (e.g., Genesis 17:1), signifies “integrity” and “maturity,” as further defined in Psalms 15:2 and 24:4; and Micah 6:8. This is what Jesus wants from His followers—the pursuit of holiness, justice, righteousness, love, and peace.
We need to understand the divine definitions of good and bad and how good we need to be to qualify as good. For bad is something more than “missing the mark” (as it is usually defined) or transgressing the law. Biblical narratives reveal that sin is much more serious than this; being good is much more than a matter of merely not sinning.
Sin is not defined by comparing ourselves to others, like the Pharisee Jesus described: “‘“God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector”’” (Luke 18:11). The Pharisee did not understand that sin cannot be defined by any human standard but only by grasping how deeply every person is embedded and entangled in the deadly condition of sin. We are not merely victims of sin but actual inhabitants. In the final judgment, we won’t be able to fall back on such excuses as, “Nobody’s perfect,” or “We all make mistakes.” Sin is the universal human condition, and because it is so blinding, it never will become fully obvious to us unless we constantly align ourselves with God. “Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement; he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.”5 Only as we cling to Jesus in repentance will this ever become clear.
Perhaps modern casual familiarity with the divine has brought about this corresponding effect of a dampened conviction of our sinful nature. Exposure to God’s naked, unveiled, overwhelming glory would quickly correct this superficial thinking. Recall that whenever Jesus’ divinity flashed through humanity, people were thrown to the ground, for there is a humanly unbridgeable, fatally serious abyss between a holy God of righteousness and sinful humanity.
This is illustrated in the Sermon on the Mount. When confident believers hold up their “good deeds,” Jesus responds that He does not know them (Matt. 7:21–23). Those who think they are “good enough” are going to learn that they built on the wrong foundation. Those who have been merely “religious” are going to discover that God was looking for something better. And those who counted on their “goodness” will learn that some people whom they thought were not “good enough” will be given salvation.
Throughout history, Christians seem to have become accustomed to an accommodating standard of righteousness far below the holiness of God. But Ellen G. White instructed that true growth in sanctification is a painful process: “The closer you come to Jesus, the more faulty you will appear in your own eyes; for your vision will be clearer, and your imperfections will be seen in broad and distinct contrast to His perfect nature. This is evidence that Satan's delusions have lost their power; that the vivifying influence of the Spirit of God is arousing you. No deep-seated love for Jesus can dwell in the heart that does not realize its own sinfulness. The soul that is transformed by the grace of Christ will admire His divine character; but if we do not see our own moral deformity, it is unmistakable evidence that we have not had a view of the beauty and excellence of Christ.”6
Growth in sanctification by a true follower of Jesus will always be experienced as an ever-increasing consciousness of one’s sinfulness. The biblical narratives disclose that those who truly grew in grace were precisely those who most intensely sensed their human sinfulness. There was no self-applause of personal goodness. The great apostle Paul understood this: “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Tim. 1:15). Even the prophet Daniel, of whom nothing sinful is recorded in Scripture, prayed to be forgiven. And Ellen G. White commended Daniel’s example as something from which believers need to learn: “As we have clearer views of Christ’s spotless and infinite purity we shall feel as did Daniel when he beheld the glory of the Lord and said, ‘My comeliness was turned in me into corruption’ (Daniel 10:8). We cannot say, ‘I am sinless’ till this vile body is changed and fashioned like unto His glorious body. But if we constantly seek to follow Jesus, the blessed hope is ours of standing before the throne of God without spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing, complete in Christ, robed in His righteousness and perfection.”7
One pastor recalls his experience of growing in sanctification: “The first church I served in called me back to preach twenty-five years after I left. On my way to the church. . . I remembered how foolish and brash I was when they had me as an assistant pastor. That saying, ‘Seldom right, never in doubt’ fit me pretty well then. I thanked God for his and their patience with me. I thanked him that he somehow managed to use me. I said to the Lord, ‘I was really in over my head then, wasn’t I?’ I distinctly heard the Lord answer, ‘So what makes you think you’re in your depth now?’”8
The truly saved will ever be acknowledging and thanking God for His grace. In the Christian hymn “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” the hymn writer got it right: “Savior, if of Zion’s city, I through grace a member am . . . .”
Ellen G. White spoke of a striving after righteousness because of love for the Savior, but that growth in grace will never be adequate for our salvation. She made this clear many times, including her discussion of one of Zechariah’s visions: “As Satan accused Joshua and his people, so in all ages he accuses those who are seeking the mercy and favor of God. In the Revelation he is declared to be the ‘accuser of our brethren, which accused them before our God day and night.’ Revelation 12:10. The controversy is repeated over every soul that is rescued from the power of evil and whose name is registered in the Lamb's book of life. . . . Man cannot meet these charges himself. In his sin-stained garments, confessing his guilt, he stands before God. But Jesus our Advocate presents an effectual plea in behalf of all who by repentance and faith have committed the keeping of their souls to Him. He pleads their cause and vanquishes their accuser by the mighty arguments of Calvary. His perfect obedience to God's law, even unto the death of the cross, has given Him all power in heaven and in earth, and He claims of His Father mercy and reconciliation for guilty man. To the accuser of His people He declares: ‘“The Lord rebuke thee, O Satan.” These are the purchase of My blood, brands plucked from the burning.’ Those who rely upon Him in faith receive the comforting assurance: “Behold, I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will clothe thee with change of raiment.”9
She continued by insisting that, “All that have put on the robe of Christ’s righteousness will stand before Him as chosen and faithful and true. Satan has no power to pluck them out of the hand of Christ. Not one soul that in penitence and faith has claimed His protection will Christ permit to pass under the enemy's power. . . . The fact that the acknowledged people of God are represented as standing before the Lord in filthy garments should lead to humility and deep searching of heart on the part of all who profess His name.”10
And significantly, her visionary description of the climactic day of Christ’s return mentions no confident cheering by the redeemed: “As the living cloud comes still nearer, every eye beholds the Prince of life. . . . A diadem of glory rests on His holy brow. His countenance outshines the dazzling brightness of the noonday sun. ‘And He hath on His vesture and on His thigh a name written, King of kings, and Lord of lords.’ Revelation 19:16. Before His presence ‘all faces are turned into paleness; . . . and the faces of them all gather blackness.’ Jeremiah 30:6; Nahum 2:10. The righteous cry with trembling: ‘Who shall be able to stand?’ The angels’ song is hushed, and there is a period of awful silence. Then the voice of Jesus is heard, saying: ‘My grace is sufficient for you.’ The faces of the righteous are lighted up, and joy fills every heart. And the angels strike a note higher and sing again as they draw still nearer to the earth.”11
God has never revealed the exact date when Jesus will come. He only promises that it will come “suddenly.” This does not mean that history has no direction or goal. God remains sovereign in the timing of human history. Looking for the Second Coming is a way of discerning this while acknowledging that what was promised is true. Nor is the great Second Coming dependent upon our perfection or we would never be saved, because there is no such thing as human righteousness.
But God promises through His prophet: “He shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end” (Luke 1:33, KJV). We don’t need to think “delay” or underestimate the certainty of the divine promise. The second coming of Christ is the promised climax of the Christian gospel, grounded in God’s glorious righteousness and grace demonstrated all through salvation history, as the psalmist chanted: “The Lord has made known His salvation; His righteousness He has revealed in the sight of the nations” (Ps. 98:2). God’s faithful believers have ever failed their Lord, but He has never forsaken His people.
Yes, much time has passed since Jesus promised to come. Perhaps most Christians, at one time or another, will wonder why evil still seems to triumph and ponder how things can become any worse. But the powerful promise of God is greater than any of our doubts or fears. And secular scoffing need not crush our faith. Whatever doubts or negative emotions, whatever spiritual emptiness may threaten, it is no match for the promise and power of God!
“The nations will see your righteousness, and all kings your glory; and you will be called by a new name Which the mouth of the Lord will designate. You will also be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord. And a royal diadem in the hand of your God. . . . As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, So your God will rejoice over you” (Isa. 62:2, 3, 5, NASB).
“Behold,” says Isaiah, “the darkness shall cover the earth, And deep darkness the people; But the Lord will arise over you, and His glory will be seen upon you” (60:2, italics supplied).
Both the Old and New Testaments present glorious descriptions of God’s kingdom restored. There will be the reunion of the first and second Adam, along with feasting at the marriage supper of the Lamb, with Jesus serving. We will be able to study the glories of creation with the Creator as Instructor: “‘Now we see through a glass, darkly.’ We behold the image of God reflected, as in a mirror, in the works of nature and in His dealings with men; but then we shall see Him face to face, without a dimming veil between. We shall stand in His presence and behold the glory of His countenance.”12
Only by God’s grace will anyone, even “good sinners,” be saved. And those who eagerly await His glorious appearing will be highly motivated to share this amazing grace, longing for the praise of the Lamb to reach “every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). As believers come ever closer to Jesus, waiting for His glorious appearing will not diminish their eagerness, for they know it will be worth the wait!
“Even so, come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20). Quickly come!
Jo Ann Davidson, PhD, is Professor of Systematic Theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A.
NOTES AND REFERENCES