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The Early Waggoner: 1886
In 18861 E. J. Waggoner wrote thirty-three articles for the Signs of the Times. His theme was the relation of the law and the gospel. This theme was to bring a confrontation in the historic conference of 1888.
On January 21, 1886, Waggoner began with the law of God—its nature, its jurisdiction and its perpetuity. He stressed the great perfection, breadth and spirituality of God's law. The law enters into every area of human existence. It demands the utmost perfection not only in every word and deed, but in every secret thought and motive. In building a strong case for the claims of God's law, Waggoner referred to such men as John Wesley, Bishop Matthew Simpson and Dr. Thomas Chalmers. He made repeated and effective use of Romans 2:13: "The doers of the law shall be justified." If a man perfectly kept the perfect law, he would be justified. But no one of
40this kind can be found. This was an excellent preparation for Waggoner's significant article of March 25 entitled "Justified by Faith." Here are the major points in this article.
First, Waggoner's definition of justification was forensic.
Christ takes upon himself the sins of all our past life, and in return lets his righteousness be counted as ours. When this is done for a man, the law can do no other than justify him. It demands perfect obedience in the life, and that is what it finds. It matters not to the law that the obedience which it finds in the man's life is not really his own; it is counted as his own; and since the obedience is perfect, the law cannot condemn. Christ suffered the penalty for the sins which the man actually committed (Isa. 53:6, 10; 2 Cor. 5:2 1; 1 Peter 2:24), and thus God can be perfectly just and at the same time may justify a man who has sinned. But this can be done only for those who have faith in Christ's blood.3
41Waggoner saw justification solely in forensic terms.
Second, justification comes to man only on the basis of Christ's doing and dying for us. The death of Christ "made it possible for God to justify those who have faith in his blood."4 Waggoner thus acknowledged that God could not forgive apart from the penal sufferings of Jesus Christ. In this, Waggoner was true to the Bible and to the best in the Protestant heritage.
Third, Waggoner showed definite development in his understanding of justification. He began to comprehend that Christ not only had to die to pay the penalty so there could be no imputation of sin. Christ also had to keep the law in His life so that His perfect obedience could be counted as ours. Waggoner saw that justification includes both the forgiveness of past sins and the imputation of perfect righteousness to the believer.
Fourth, Waggoner inconsistently maintained his view of justification for past sins only. This was apparently based at least partly on the unsatisfactory rendering of Romans 3:25 in the King James Version.5 We appreciate
42Waggoner's concern that justification not become a once-saved-always-saved indulgence for future sin. But he was not clear on the problem of inbred sin—original sin—which still cleaves to regenerate Christians. Even the obedience of regenerate saints falls short of the divine splendor of God's law. Although the Spirit lives in them and moves them toward perfection, they cannot stand before the law with their new obedience. A justification for past sins only, so long and so much a part of Adventist soteriology, is inadequate.
Last, Waggoner betrayed his inadequate concept of human sinfulness. He said, "The law of God is so extensive and perfect in its requirements that the best efforts of fallen man, unassisted, must fall far short of it.,, 6 That is true. And what Christian—Catholic or Protestant— would ever dispute it? But the scandal of the Reformation was its claim that because of inbred corruption, even the saints' best works in a state of grace fall short of the perfection required by the law. Waggoner did not have this insight. His inadequate doctrine of sin led him to propose that the believer could finally stand in the judgment and meet its standard through inward sanctification.
Although Waggoner presented the good news of justification at the beginning of the Christian life, his understanding was not fully Reformational and certainly not fully Pauline. Paul's message of justification is eschatological. He does not ask how a man can find a
43righteousness to start the Christian life in order to become sanctified enough to pass the judgment. Rather, he addresses the question, How can a man find a righteousness to stand in the final judgment?
On April 1 Waggoner discussed the relation between justification and sanctification. He appeared to make further advancement. He reemphasized both the purely forensic nature of justification and the doctrine of imputed righteousness.
Justification was simply the "showing to be just, or conformable to the law." His [a man's] justification was simply pardon for having violated the law; it was an act by which another's righteousness was put in place of his unrighteousness.7
44... not an instantaneous, but a progressive work."8
Waggoner seemed to hint at a justification not only for the past, but for the present sinfulness of the saints. He was not too explicit on this point. But he said:
The redeemed saint will have no cause for boasting over the lost sinner. True, the law, when applied to their lives, reports perfection in the one case, and only sin in the other; but the saint cannot boast, for without Christ he would have been nothing. If Christ had not put his own righteousness upon him, he would be in as hopeless a condition as the sinner.9
Any hope that Waggoner had recovered the true biblical and Protestant faith is frustrated by his article of April 8. He returned to his theme of 1884 that eternal life is given on condition of perfect obedience to the law of God. But again he failed to show that this condition is met by the obedience of our Surety and in the imputation of that obedience to the believer. Rather, he said:
To conclude, then, we have found that the design of the
45law was that it should give life because of obedience. All men have sinned, and been sentenced to death. But Christ took upon himself man's nature, and will impart of his own righteousness to those who accept his sacrifice, and finally, when they stand, through him, as doers of the law, he will fulfill to them its ultimate object, by crowning them with eternal life. And so we repeat, what we cannot too fully appreciate, that Christ is made unto us "wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption."10
On April 15 Waggoner reinforced his concept that we gain eternal life by keeping the law with God's help. "He [Christ] is the 'end of the law,' in that he enables sinners to keep it, and thus to secure the life to which the law was ordained."" How disappointing! Waggoner takes us to the very borders of the Promised Land and then turns us back into the old-covenant wilderness. But he was near the great breakthrough. In his Signs article of May 6 he could say, "Having accepted Christ, his righteousness is imputed to us, which makes us clear before the law."12
46Why did Waggoner not link this perfect righteousness with a full justification to life eternal? He could not see that far. After glimpsing Canaan, he failed to grasp the full provisions of the covenant of grace. So he said, "And as sin brought condemnation and death, so, when we are cleared from sin and condemnation, continued obedience, or righteousness, brings eternal life through Christ."13
Waggoner's problem was partly that he never understood what Paul means by being "under the law." Paul does not simply mean "under condemnation" as Waggoner insisted. Paul means being under law as a method of gaining eternal life. A man who thinks eternal life is gained by his lawkeeping is "under law" or under the old covenant, even if that lawkeeping is by God's help. Waggoner could not fully break into the light of the new covenant.
Waggoner wanted to prove that the law must be kept by the justified believer. But in saying that the believer must keep the law in order to gain life, Waggoner again fell "under the law." If only he had understood New Testament justification! It is not just a matter of starting the Christian life. It is grasping the verdict of the final judgment in the now by faith. And then it is living in the joy and freedom of knowing we already have eternal life on the ground that Christ has kept the law for us. Keeping the law even with assisting grace does not secure what Christ's keeping of the law obtained for us. His obedience gained eternal life for us as a free gift. Our obedience testifies to our faith in Jesus and makes us colaborers with Him in blessing others.
On June 3 Waggoner proposed that the law is written
47in the hearts of God's people after their sins have been forgiven. "That means that they will be enabled to keep it perfectly."14 Waggoner apparently fell into the error, common to traditional Adventism, that in the old covenant a person attempts to secure eternal life by keeping the law in his own strength, while in the new covenant the believer secures eternal life by keeping the law in God's strength. But who is so uninformed as to say that eternal life is won by man's unaided efforts to keep the law? Certainly no sensible Roman Catholic scholar has ever said that. Even the Pharisee prayed, "God, I thank Thee, that I am not as other men."
Unfortunately, Waggoner could not see that all works fall short of the glory of the law. All works done before grace are blatant sin. And all works done after grace are still tainted with sinful human defilement—not because the Spirit's work is imperfect or impotent, but because the human channel is still a corrupt, fallen nature. No saint is ever without sin for a moment. He does not satisfy the law with his new obedience no matter how much he progresses in sanctification or how much he is filled with God's Spirit.
In the new covenant, God does not merely help us fulfill the terms of the old covenant. The new-covenant gospel is the message that Christ the Mediator has fulfilled the terms of the covenant between God and man. We may enjoy the benefits by being in Christ by faith. Those benefits are forgiveness of sins and the law in our hearts. But the law is not in our hearts so that we can take Christ's place in fulfilling the terms of the covenant!
48The Law in Galatians
On August 5 Waggoner began a series on Galatians 3:19-24. In his article of August 12 he reaffirmed justification by imputed righteousness and the need for being made morally perfect before the second coming of Christ.
When Christ comes, this design will have been accomplished. Under the second covenant the law will have been written in the hearts (see Jer. 31:33) of all who have desired the better country, and thus they will "all be righteous," and fit to "inherit the land forever." Isa. 60:2 1. They will be righteous because the law is written in their hearts. They will then be as pure as was Adam when he was first created, with this advantage, that their characters will have been fully tested.15
Waggoner did not exclude the ritual law from Galatians 3. But the following week he cited John Wesley in
49arguing that Galatians 3 is particularly concerned with the moral law.17 On September 23 he used the writings of pioneer J. N. Andrews to affirm that the schoolmaster law refers to the moral law.18
In November Waggoner published an article by his father, J. H. Waggoner. The article clearly demonstrated that the father shared his son's passion for justification by faith. As E. J. Waggoner showed evidence of reflecting Luther, so J. H. Waggoner showed his indebtedness to the Reformation understanding of justification. J. H. Waggoner began by declaring:
50accounted righteous by reason of what some one does for us, and not by reason of our works or obedience.20
Justification is not of or by works; ... it places him [man] where he can work to divine acceptance. . . Justification is for past sins, or for their remission; salvation is future, and is conditioned upon "patient continuance in well-doing." Rom. 2:7.21`
The best exegetes acknowledge that justification and salvation are not identical terms. Salvation may refer to justification, to the process of sanctification or even to our deliverance at the coming of Christ. But we must carefully avoid the idea that justification falls short of bringing us salvation or that it is only a partial salvation. We receive a knowledge—an experimental possession—of salvation by the forgiveness of sins (Luke 1:77). Jesus declared, "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life" (John 5:24, RSV).
Justification is the verdict of the heavenly Judge that forgiveness is ours, heaven is ours, eternal life is ours,
51the inheritance is ours, the Holy Spirit is ours, a life of holiness is ours and everything Christ has is ours. In the verdict of the court we are given "all things." God pledges that He will make us holy and fit for heaven if only we "continue in the faith." Justification implicitly includes sanctification and glorification because it guarantees them. Justification therefore puts us in full possession of salvation. But we must understand that that salvation is possessed by faith.
We can sympathize with J. H. Waggoner's fear of antinomianism and a lazy once-saved-always-saved-ism. But he does not solve the problem by suggesting that justification is less than a justification unto the full salvation of life eternal.
If his son, E. J. Waggoner, also believed that justification was by faith alone but salvation was by lawkeeping, he certainly had not yet recovered either the Protestant or the New Testament faith. In the New Testament, justification, the gift of the Holy Spirit and salvation are all eschatological gifts. They are all ours by grace for Christ's sake through faith.
Apparently Uriah Smith and George Butler had been following E. J. Waggoner's pen with considerable apprehension. To understand this we need to review some Seventh-day Adventist history.
In the formative years of Seventh-day Adventism, J. N. Andrews22 and J. H. Waggoner23 were foremost
52among those who taught that the law in Galatians especially referred to the moral law. James White also believed that the law in Galatians principally referred to the moral law.24 Looking back over those early years, George Butler observed that a majority of the leading brethren "accepted the view that the moral law was the main subject of Paul's consideration in the book of Galatians"25
In 1854 J. H. Waggoner published a pamphlet entitled The Law of God: An Examination of the Testimony of Both Testaments. He took the position that the law in Galatians was the moral law. But as the Sabbatarian Adventists became embroiled in controversy over the binding claims of the Ten Commandments, some believed they needed a stronger answer to Galatians 3:24, 25: "Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster." They felt that if they took the position that this scripture referred to the ceremonial law, they could better answer the anti-Sabbatarians. Thus, in 1856 the brethren in Vermont became greatly concerned over the publication of Waggoner's pamphlet. They sent Stephen Pierce to Battle Creek to investigate J. H. Waggoner's position.
J. H. Waggoner refused to stay in Battle Creek for the examination, but returned to his home in Burlington.
53Nevertheless, meetings were held with Elder Pierce at Battle Creek. Uriah Smith and James and Ellen White were present. For three days the whole question was thoroughly discussed. Apparently Pierce convincingly defended his proposition that the law in Galatians was the Mosaic law. J. H. Waggoner's view was repudiated. Smith records that "Sr. White shortly after this had a vision in which this law question was shown her, and she immediately wrote J. H. W. that his position on the law was wrong, and Bro. Pierce was right."26
As a result James White withdrew J. H. Waggoner's book from the market. Despite J. H. Waggoner's repeated solicitations to have his book republished, James White replied, "NOT until you revise your position on the law." Waggoner refused to do this, so the book was never reissued.27 This provides a historical background for the controversy which ensued in 1886.
The Butler-Waggoner Exchange
In November, 1886, George Butler, the President of the General Conference, published an eighty-five page booklet entitled The Law in the Book of Galatians: Is It the Moral Law, or Does It Refer to that System of Laws Peculiarly Jewish? It was issued on the opening day of the 1886 General Conference, held at Battle Creek. This work did not mention E. J. Waggoner's name. But it was obviously intended as an official refutation of Waggoner's articles in the Signs of the Times on the law in
54Galatians. In his booklet Butler acknowledged that in the early years of the pioneer period the law in Galatians was thought to be the moral law. He went on to say:
55agitated. He therefore brought the matter to the attention of the Theological Committee at the General Conference session of December 6. A resolution, designed to suppress the publication of views contrary to the position "held by a fair majority of our people" unless these views had first been "examined and approved by the leading brethren of experience," was passed.30
On February 10, 1887, Waggoner prepared a seventy-one page open letter to Butler called The Gospel in the Book of Galatians: A Review. His letter was largely a closely reasoned defense of his view that the law passages in Galatians refer to the moral law. We believe this represents some of his finest writing.
Although Waggoner presented the better argument, he overstated his case when he said that in Galatians 3:24, 25 "the reference must be to the moral law, and to that alone"31 Moreover, Galatians 3:19 refers primarily to the historical coming of Christ with its dispensational changes as Butler claimed. And "under the law" does not always mean "under condemnation" as Waggoner insisted.32
Although Waggoner's answer to Butler contains no exposition of justification by faith, it reveals Waggoner's high estimate of this doctrine. Whereas Butler referred to it as "the much-vaunted doctrine of justification by faith,"33 Waggoner retorted:
56Before I close, I cannot refrain from expressing my regret to see in your book (on page 78) the expression, "The much-vaunted doctrine of justification by faith." Do you know of any other means of justification? Your words seem to intimate that you think that doctrine has been overestimated. Of one thing I am certain, and that is, that those who have held to the theory of the law, which you are endeavoring to uphold, have not overestimated the doctrine of justification by faith; because that theory leads inevitably to the conclusion that men are justified by the law. But when I read Rom. 3:28, and read also that Paul knew nothing among the Corinthians but Jesus Christ and him crucified, and that "the just shall live by faith," and that "this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith" (1 John 5:4), and that Paul wanted to be found when Christ comes, having nothing but "the righteousness which is of God by faith" (Phil. 3:9), I conclude that it is impossible to overestimate the doctrine of justification by faith. You may call it a "much-vaunted" doctrine if you please; I accept the word, and say with Paul: "God forbid that I should glory [or vaunt], save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world."34
57If our people should today, as a body (as they will sometime), change their view on this point, it would simply be an acknowledgment that they are better informed today than they were yesterday. It would simply be taking an advance step, which is never humiliating except to those whose pride of opinion will not allow them to admit that they can be wrong. It would simply be a step nearer the faith of the great Reformers from the days of Paul to the days of Luther and Wesley. It would be a step closer to the heart of the Third Angel's Message. I do not regard this view which I hold as a new idea at all. It is not a new theory of doctrine. Everything that I have taught is perfectly in harmony with the fundamental principles of truth which have been held not only by our people, but by all the eminent reformers. And so I do not take any credit to myself for advancing it. All I claim for the theory is, that it is consistent, because it sticks to the fundamental principles of the gospel.35
58made apparent. I have no hesitancy in saying that you have made a mistake. You have departed from the positive directions God has given on this matter, and only harm will be the result. This is not in God's order. You have now set the example for others to do as you have done, to feel at liberty to put in their various ideas and theories and bring in a state of things you have not dreamed of.... It is no small matter for you to come out in the "Signs" as you have done, and God has plainly revealed that such things should not be done. We must keep before the world a united front. Satan will triumph to see differences among Seventh-day Adventists. These questions are not vital points. I have not read Elder Butler's pamphlet or any articles written by any of our writers and I do not mean to.... The matter does not lie clear and distinct in my mind yet. I cannot grasp the matter, and for this reason I am fully convinced that in the presenting it has not only been untimely, but deleterious. Elder Butler has had such an amount of burdens he was not prepared to do this subject justice. Brother E. J. Waggoner has had his mind exercised on this subject, but to bring differences into the General Conference is a mistake; it should not be done. There are those who do not go deep, who are not Bible students, who will take positions decidedly for or against, grasping at apparent evidence; yet it may not be truth, and to take differences into our conferences where the differences become widespread, and sending forth all through the field various ideas, one in opposition to the other, is not God's plan but at once raises questionings and doubts whether we have the truth whether after all we are not mistaken and in error.
The Reformation was greatly retarded by making prominent differences in some points of faith and each party holding tenaciously to those things where they differed. We shall see eye to eye ere long, but to become firm and consider it your duty to present your views in decided opposition to the faith or truth as it has been taught by us as a people, is a mistake, and will result in harm, and only harm, as in the days of Martin Luther. Beginning to draw apart and feel at liberty to express your ideas without reference to the views of your brethren, and a
59state of things will be introduced that you do not dream of. My husband had some ideas on some points different from the views taken by his brethren. I was shown however true his views were, God did not call for him to put them in front before his brethren and create differences of ideas. While he might hold these views subordinate himself, once made public and minds would seize, and just because others believed differently would make this difference the whole burden of the message, and get up contention and variance. There are the main pillars of our faith, subjects which are of vital interest, the Sabbath and keeping the commandments of God, and speculative ideas should not be agitated. For there are peculiar minds that love to get some point that others do not believe, and argue and attract attention to that one point, urge that point, magnify that point, when really it is a point which is not of vital importance and will be understood differently. Twice I have been shown that everything of a character to cause our brethren to be divided from the very points now essential for this time, should be kept in the background. Christ did not reveal many things that were true because it would create a difference of opinion and get up dissatisfaction, but young men who have not passed through the experience we have had would as soon have a brush as not. Nothing would suit them better than a sharp discussion. If these things come into our Conference, I would refuse to attend one of them; for I have so much light upon this subject that I know that unconsecrated and unsanctified hearts would enjoy this kind of exercise. Too late in the day, brethren, too late in the day. We are in the great day of atonement, a time when a man must be afflicting his soul, confessing his sins, humbling his heart before God, and getting ready for the conflict. When these contentions come in before the people they will think one has the argument, and that another decidedly opposed has the argument, the poor people become confused and the Conference will be a dead loss, worse than though they had no conference. Now when everything is in dissension and strife, there must be decided effort to handle, publish with pen and voice these things that will reveal only harmony. Elder Waggoner has loved discussion and contention. I fear that Elder E.
60J. Waggoner has cultivated a love for the same. We need now good humble religion. Elder E. J. W. needs humility, meekness, and Brother Jones can be a power for good if he will constantly cultivate practical godliness that he may teach this to the people. But how do you think I feel to see our two leading papers in contention? I know how these papers came into existence, I know what God has said about them, that they are one, that no variance should be seen in these two instrumentalities of God. They are one and they must remain one, breathing the same spirit, exercising the same work, to prepare a people to stand in the day of the Lord, one in faith and one in purpose.36
A copy of Mrs. White's letter to Waggoner and Jones was sent to Butler and Smith. They took encouragement from it and, writing in the Review and Herald, attacked Waggoner's s views on the law in Galatians. They also circulated Butler's booklet against Waggoner. Mrs. White protested this misuse of her counsel. Because of their attacks on Waggoner's position, she said it would be unfair to expect Waggoner to remain silent. Her letter is astonishingly frank. It shows how a new set of circumstances demands new counsel.
Dear Brethren Butler and Smith:
61and Jones to Eld. Butler in reference to introducing and keeping in the front and making prominent subjects on which there [are] differences of opinions. I sent this not that you should make them weapons to use against the brethren mentioned, but that the very same cautions and carefulness be exercised by you to preserve harmony as you would have these Brethren exercise....
Now I do not wish the letter that I have sent to you should be used in a way that you will take it for granted that your ideas are all correct and Dr. Waggoner's and Elder Jones' are all wrong.
I was pained when I saw your article in the Review, and for the last half hour I have been reading the references preceding your pamphlet. Now my brother, things that you have said many of them are all right. The principles that you refer to are right but how this can harmonize with your pointed remarks to Dr. Waggoner, I cannot see. I think you are too sharp. And then when this is followed by a pamphlet published of your own views, be assured I cannot feel that you are just right at this point to do this unless you give the same liberty to Dr. Waggoner. Had you avoided the question, which you state has been done, it would have been more in accordance with the light God has seen fit to give to me....
I tell you brethren I am troubled, when I see you take positions that you forbid others to take and that you would condemn in others. I do not think this is the right way to deal with one another. I want to see no pharisaism among us. The matter now has been brought so fully before the people by yourself as well as Dr. Waggoner, that it must be met fairly and squarely in open discussion. I see no other way and if this cannot be done without a spirit of pharisaism then let us stop publishing these matters and learn more fully lessons in the school of Christ. I believe now that nothing can be done but open discussion. You circulated your pamphlet, now it is only fair that Dr. Waggoner should have just as fair a chance as you have had. I think the whole thing is not in God's order. But brethren we must have no unfairness. We must work as Christians. If we have any point that is not fully, clearly defined and can bear the test of criticism
62don't be afraid or too proud to yield it.37
Mrs. White realized the matter could not be suppressed, so she called for a free and open forum. This discussion reached a confrontation at the historic Minneapolis conference in 1888.
1 Waggoner wrote very little in 1885. He was largely occupied with
teaching at Healdsburg College and preaching at regional camp meetings.
3 Ibid. [back]
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