In this edition of Open Face I want to look at the ideas of these two men, and show why their view is limited and does not answer the real questions. I will also look at the real issues and show what the biblical solution to the problem is. This is critically important for us to understand, because it is only when we understand what the problems really are that we can truly even begin to understand what the solution to the problems is.
I have broken down the response to these two men into several short articles for easier reading and comprehension and these make up this edition of Open Face.
Dennis Priebe and Ralph Larson have been representative voices in “historic Adventism” for many years. Ralph Larson especially has been a well known theologian who has championed the cause of those on the fringe of Adventism. When I first became involved in this movement I read several articles written by Ralph Larson who was regularly featured both as a writer and speaker in the various independent publications and at the various campmeetings. Though I never met elder Larson personally, it was evident to me that he was highly respected among the independent “historic” Adventists and that his opinion was highly valued. One of his most well known and widely read books is “ The Word was Made Flesh.”
I also never met Dennis Priebe personally. He is perhaps not as well known as Elder Larson but his writings and tapes have also made an impact on the beliefs of “historic” Adventists.
Sometime in the early nineties somebody sent me a set of tapes by Elder Priebe which focused on the issue of sin. I listened to the tapes and at the time they appeared to make sense to me. For several years after that I vigorously defended the point of view presented by Elder Priebe which is basically the same as that presented by Elder Larson. Elder Priebe has published a book entitled, “Face to Face With The Real Gospel,” Where he presents his understanding of the issues which are at the root of Adventism's problems.
Back in the 1950s, the SDA Church published a book called, “ Seventh-day Adventists answer Questions on Doctrine .” This book was written in response to a series of questions which had been presented to the leaders of the Church by a couple of evangelical leaders, Donald Grey Barnhouse, the editor or Eternity, Magazine and Walter Martin, well known author and expert on cults. In that book, the church outlined its views on several doctrines including the Atonement, the Nature of Christ, The Investigative Judgment etc.
A retired minister named M.L. Andreasen took strong objection to the things which were taught in this book, because in his opinion they differed widely from what the early Adventists believed and taught. He felt that the views expressed in the book represented a major departure from Adventist teaching and he regarded the book as a huge step in apostasy. He wrote a series of letters protesting the position taken in the book and outlining what had happened. These have been compiled into a little booklet called, Letters to the Churches.
Ever since that time there has been a running battle going on in Adventism concerning these issues. These were essentially the issues which Elders Priebe and Larson, discussed in these two papers.
The “Two Gospels” controversy.
Dennis Priebe says there are two gospels being preached in the SDA Church and he says that the problem with Adventism is these two gospels. One of them is right and one of them is wrong. In his own words,
“But now we have two gospels within the mainstream of Adventism, and again, a difficult choice. What we once thought of as one track of truth has been seen only lately as two tracks, diverging more and more widely until we have found ourselves at this crisis point. At the heart of my proposal to you is the deep conviction that these two tracks are totally incompatible with each other. That compromise or harmony between them is logically impossible. And that one must make a choice between two systems. “
Ralph Larson says basically the same thing, but approaches the issue from a slightly different perspective. He says that the false gospel is based on the doctrine of “ Original Sin ,” while the true gospel is based on what he calls, “ Free Choice .” Actually, when you understand what he and Priebe are saying, their doctrine may be labelled as the teaching of, Original Sinlessness.
I read what these two men said, I looked at the implications of what they presented and I realized that while I do not believe in original sin, I also do not believe in the “gospel” which they were presenting as the truth. I do not agree with any of the gospels which they were presenting – neither the one which they describe as false, nor the one which they say is the truth. I recognized that there is a third alternative, and I thought to myself, “if these are the only two gospels which are being taught in the Adventist Church, no wonder the Church has problems!
According to brothers Priebe and Larson, the issues which arise from these two gospels center around the following questions:
a. The Nature of Christ
b. The Nature of man.
c. The Nature of sin.
As Larson puts it,
“The present debate is not about minor matters. It involves doctrines that are at the very heart of our theology: the nature of Christ, the nature of man, and the nature of salvation itself.”
The “Gospel” of Original Sin
Both men have stated their conviction that the root of the problems which exist in Adventism is the false teaching of original sin .
In order for us to fully appreciate what they mean, we need to look at the doctrine of original sin. Larson has stated some points which he sees as the key teachings of original sin and we will look at the three main points briefly. According to Larson, original sin teaches that:
a. All men are guilty before God because of the sins of Adam, even if it were possible for them to live without performing a single sinful act in their entire lives.
b. They are judged and condemned by God for this guilt, which they inherit from Adam as fully as for their own sins.
c. The root of this sinful condition and this guilt, is the sinful nature which men are born with.
What does it mean when we say a person is guilty? It is not just the feeling of guilt and condemnation on the part of the individual. Guilt also suggests that there is an authority who imposes condemnation on you, or who views you in a negative and condemnatory way. It is a legal status. If my child is guilty of something, it does not merely mean that he feels condemned, but it means also that the law can accuse and condemn him for what he did. He is deserving of some punishment. The word “guilt” carries with it the idea of accountability. A person can be questioned, charged and punished for his actions.
Now if any human being is charged with guilt simply because of what Adam did, can we see what it means? It means that whoever set up that system is not a fair person and according to this teaching of original sin, it is God who set up this system. God makes a new-born baby guilty for what Adam did. The child had no choice in the matter, no input in the matter, but God says, “you are guilty!” This is not justice, and when a person believes that God is this kind of Person, he is bound to think ill of God. He cannot love or trust this person whose justice is so warped that He would charge somebody with guilt for what somebody else did six thousand years ago.
Let me say clearly, definitely and categorically that neither I nor anybody else at Restoration Ministries believes in the above points. We do not believe anybody except Adam is guilty for the sin of Adam. Therefore nobody can be condemned and judged by God for this sin except Adam. I am in full agreement with Larson and Priebe in condemning original sin as it is defined above.
From this understanding of original sin, Larson goes on to point out that there are certain conclusions which follow and that these conclusions lay the foundation for a false concept of the gospel. Some of these conclusions are as follows:
a. It is impossible for men to ever achieve complete victory over sin while living upon this earth, for sin is man's nature, and he will always have that nature until he is transformed at the coming of Jesus.
b. Even after a person is converted he continues to be guilty, because of course, he still has his sinful nature which is the source of his guilt.
c. Weakness, imperfections and tendencies are sin.
d. It is not possible for man to get rid of this condition while he lives upon this earth, even through the power of Christ.
e. It would be impossible for Christ to be a saviour if the inheritance of Original sin passed to Him from Mary, so the doctrine of the Immaculate conception was invented, which supposedly prevented Mary from inheriting original sin (so that she could not pass on sin to Christ).
f. Christ took the sinless nature of Adam which he possessed before the fall, because if He had taken our fallen nature, He also would have been guilty.
All of the above points seem to demonstrate clearly that the doctrine of original sin is a dangerous teaching which leaves Christians with no hope of ever being free from sin in this life and like I said, I agree wholeheartedly that it is a false and dangerous doctrine.
But the question is, what do Priebe and Larson see as the truth? Is their version of the gospel any better than the one which arises from the teaching of original sin? I believe that their solution is no solution at all and introduces a concept of the gospel which is equally without hope.
The “Gospel” of Original Sinlessness.
What are the real issues in the great controversy between Christ and Satan? It may seem like this is an irrelevant question, but in fact, it is vitally important. Our understanding of this fundamental question is the thing which determines how we see everything else. You see, the whole sin problem is greater than simply the question of how man is to be saved. It goes beyond that. It is a question of how God is to be finally vindicated and how it will be proven to Satan and the entire universe that God was always right from the beginning and Satan was always wrong.
Larson and Priebe seem to understand this and they set out to explain what these underlying issues are. But the more they explain, the more reason there is for alarm. These men see free choice as the first fundamental principle of the gospel which they believe to be true. They believe that the entire controversy centers on the issue of free choice and that nobody can be accounted guilty, judged and condemned until he has first exercised the power of choice in choosing to disobey God personally.
Dennis Priebe says,
“The basic presupposition of this gospel is that the heart of the cosmic controversy between God and Satan revolves around the issue of free choice. God took terrible risks with the universe to protect freedom of choice. … Thus the issue to be resolved is how unfallen beings, angels and fallen beings will choose in the great controversy, either for God or for Satan….. The gospel is built solidly on the foundation of free choice, the two most important words in the history and the future of the universe.”
A little later on he says again,
“Sin is not basically the way man is, but the way man chooses. Sin is when the mind consents to what seems desirable and thus breaks its relationship with God. To talk of guilt in terms of inherited nature is to overlook the important category of responsibility. Not until we have joined our own will to mankind's rebellion against God, not until we have actively entered into opposition to the will of God does guilt enter in. Sin is concerned with a man's life, his rebellion against God, his willful disobedience, and the distorted relationship with God which ensues. Sin is concerned with a man's will rather than his nature. If responsibility for sin is to have any meaning, it cannot also be affirmed that fallen human nature makes the man inevitably guilty of sin. Inevitability and responsibility are mutually exclusive concepts in the moral sphere. Thus sin is defined as choosing willfully to rebel against God in thought, word, or action. In this gospel, sin is our willful choice to exercise our fallen nature in opposition to God's will.”
Here, there is a mixture of some truth mingled with error. The problem is that these men have started with some misconceptions, some wrong ideas and they have built on these. What are these misconceptions and wrong ideas?
These men are ignoring the critical question of what is the make-up of man's nature? Priebe and Larson teach that,
a. The only time man has a problem is when he is old enough to choose,
b. Before a man is capable of choosing, he has no problem. People are born originally sinless.
This is the conclusion one draws from their teaching. But how old does a person have to be before he can make an intelligent choice? It depends on the person, but perhaps this place is arrived at by the time a child is three, six, maybe nine years old (depending on the intelligence of the child). But at some time he will come to an age which we refer to as “the age of accountability.” We refer to it in this way because at this time he is now aware of moral issues, he is aware of right and wrong, and he is able to choose intelligently, either for God, or for Satan. According to the thinking of these men, before this point, the child has no problem. This is a totally false idea.
If you accept what these men are saying in these articles then you come to the conclusion that a man does not need salvation, he does not need Christ until he comes to the place where he can make a choice. When a person makes a wrong choice, then at that point he becomes a sinner and at that point he needs Christ. What about before he comes to the age of accountability and he can make this right or wrong choice? Does he have a problem that requires Christ? Jesus came to save sinners. But Priebe says there is no sin before a person chooses willfully to rebel against God in thought, word or action. Obviously it means that such a person does not need salvation.
Now the answer to this is vitally important because if there is a person born on this planet who does not need Christ to be saved, our entire understanding of the plan of salvation needs to be revised. Jesus says, “ Except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God .” Now when he says, “a man,” does that let off the women? No, because He is speaking in the generic sense. He means men, women, and children, including babies. He means mankind as a whole. Nobody can be saved unless he is born again.