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  • Writer's pictureMatthew L. Tinkham Jr.

By Beholding We Become Changed

"And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit" (2 Cor 3:18, ESV).

Seventh-day Adventists, to a great extent, align themselves theologically with the soteriological views (i.e., the doctrine of salvation) of John Wesley and his Wesleyan Methodism. This theological alignment was largely a result of the influence of Ellen G. White upon the denomination. White, of course, was one of its co-founders (alongside her husband, James White, and their elder, Joseph Bates) and a very influential leader in the denomination. However, previous to her becoming a Millerite (i.e., a follower of William Miller's teaching regarding the imminence of the second advent of Christ) and, eventually, a Seventh-day Adventist, White was a Wesleyan Methodist. She grew up in the Methodist Episcopal Church and was baptized by immersion into her local congregation of that denomination on June 26, 1842. Prior to her baptism, as the custom was for Methodists, White was indoctrinated for an eight-month probationary period (beginning on September 20, 1841) in the faith (i.e., theology) and practice (i.e., lifestyle) of Wesleyan Methodism. Assumedly, she must have adopted that denomination's theological perspective, since her local congregation on Chestnutt Street in Portland, Maine, approved her baptism and membership on the basis of her doing so. During her time as a Millerite, later as a Sabbatarian Adventist, and, finally, a Seventh-day Adventist, White still held onto many of her Wesleyan Methodist ways of thinking, especially when it came to the doctrine of salvation. Her little book, Steps to Christ, is an excellent example of the influence of Wesleyan Methodism on her thinking about soteriology. Interestingly, this book was written well after being disfellowshipped from the Methodist Episcopal Church (on account of her belief in Millerism) and the official formation of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The influence of Wesleyan Methodism can be seen in a number of areas of Seventh-day Adventist theology, but especially in the doctrine of sanctification (i.e., the impartation of the righteousness of Christ to the believer). Unlike previous Protestant leaders and reformers, John Wesley maintained a robust view of sanctification that he often referred to as Christian perfection.1 While he held the typical Protestant views of the magisterial reformers (i.e., Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, John Calvin, and Urich Zwingli), such as sola Scriptura, original sin, total depravity, the law vs. the gospel, faith, and justification, he also was a follower of Jacobus Arminius and additionally affirmed resistible prevenient grace (in contradistinction to Calvin's irresistible regeneration) and significant libertarian freedom (as opposed to determinism). This permitted him to form a theology that included a rich understanding of sanctification and Christian perfection. With Wesley, mainstream Seventh-day Adventists embrace all the above in their views of soteriology, especially much of Wesley's views of sanctification and Christian perfection. Just as Wesley stressed the importance of living a transformed life that is being sanctified by the Holy Spirit and perfected in the love of Christ, so do Seventh-day Adventists. Wesley and Seventh-day Adventists long to be shaped into the perfect image of Christ's righteous character. Unfortunately, when we talk about how to live the sanctified life, the conversation usually takes a nose dive into legalism. We often forget about the foundation upon with sanctification rests—namely a healthy view of human depravity, God's freely given justifying grace, and the believer's experience of faith in Christ's substitutionary atoning sacrifice. When sanctification is not viewed through the lenses of total depravity and justification by grace through faith, then one's understanding of it can quickly go awry. When such is the case, much of the discussion devolves into a focus on the painstaking efforts that we must supposedly put forth in order to obtain the so-called "perfection of character." Whether that is even fully achievable or not on this side of heaven is a discussion for another time. The self-talk goes like this. "I must quit doing this." "I must stop doing that." "I better be more obedient here." I am not doing well enough there." "I need to try harder from sinning in this way." "I have finally ended my sinning in that way." "I am keeping the law perfectly on this point." "I am not doing enough to obey the law on that point." Do you see the very apparent problem with this kind of thinking about sanctification? "I" this, "I" that, "I" here, "I" there, "I," "I," "I," "I," and "I." "I" is the problem with all of the above. The truth is that "I" cannot gain victory over sin and become more like Jesus. "I" has no power to experience sanctification. Paul wrote in Rom 8:7–8, ESV, "For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law, indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God." That statement of fact refers to all of us because we are all born sinners, are composed of sinful natures, and bear very sinful flesh. Thus, no human being that has been gravely impacted by the fall has the capacity to overcome evil. Evil, sadly, is a part of who we are. Therefore, what we frequently fail to understand is that this gradual, life-long transformation of character that we call "sanctification" simply cannot be achieved by human effort because of the aforementioned reality of the total depravity of human nature. However, there is some incredibly good news. Sanctification is possible because it is a gift from God. Sanctification is by grace through faith, just as justification is. Sanctification is the process by which the justified sinner is progressively made righteous by God graciously imparting the perfect meritorious active and passive righteousness of Jesus to him or her through faith. Sanctification is God's work IN us, not our own work. Sure, believers have a "role" to play. Wesleyan Methodists and Seventh-day Adventists are synergists, meaning that they believe that the Bible teaches that human beings must cooperate with God (i.e., express faith in him), yielding to him in his work to justify, sanctify, and glorify us by grace. But before anyone gets "puffed up" over this human "role" of faith, it is important to realize that even faith itself is external to the human heart; it too is a gift from God (Phil 1:29; Acts 3:16; Eph 2:8). The significance of this fact is that faith is not a human contribution to salvation. There is NO human contribution to salvation; salvation is all God's work. We merely surrender the will (that has been enlivened by prevenient grace) to God and permit him to do his work for (i.e., justification), in (i.e., sanctification), and to (i.e., glorification) us. So how is this faith or surrender of the will supposed to happen so that we can experience sanctification and begin, little by little, to reflect the character of our heavenly example? There are different facets of this that one could highlight here, but I'd like to focus on one that was given by Paul. In 2 Cor 3:18, ESV, he wrote, "And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit." Throughout 2 Cor 3, Paul discussed issues regarding the old covenant and the new covenant. The glory associated with the old covenant on Mount Sinai had to be veiled. But Christ has come with the new covenant to unveil the full glory of God. At the end of his discussion of veiling and unveiling, Paul described the way by which one can be sanctified or "transformed into the same image [of Jesus Christ] from one degree of glory to another." This is the act of faith that he calls "beholding." We can do this "beholding of the glory of the Lord" with unveiled faces because of Jesus. What does all this mean? Paul was saying that, as we "behold" Christ by faith, we gradually experience the transformation involved in sanctification. As we turn our eyes of faith off of "I"—that is off of ourselves and our own efforts and stop focusing on our sin—and look up, seeing Jesus's beautiful righteousness, we are little by little, "from one degree of glory to another," transformed in character. In agreement, White penned, " By beholding we become changed. The more you contemplate the character of Christ, the more you will become conformed to his image."2 This change, Paul said, is enacted by "the Lord who is the Spirit." The Holy Spirit, by the believer's faith and surrender through beholding, is given access to our hearts and minds and transforms us inside out. He molds us into the image of the perfect Son of God. It is not by works, but rather by beholding Jesus with the eyes of faith that the Holy Spirit works transformation in our lives. Before concluding, I must give a caution. The truism, "By beholding we become changed," is even at play when our eyes are on other things besides Jesus. White once wrote, "It is a law both of the intellectual and the spiritual nature that by beholding we become changed. The mind gradually adapts itself to the subjects upon which it is allowed to dwell. It becomes assimilated to that which it is accustomed to love and reverence."3 If we turn our eyes upon ourselves and our own human effort—that is if we behold "I" (as above)—we will experience no progression but regression in our Christian journey.4 When we focus so hard on the sin we are trying to overcome in an effort to stop doing it and gain the victory, our beholding of that sin inadvertently makes us more like that sin. Placing our attention on our sin, even for well-intentioned purposes, will transform us further into the image of our sin. Therefore, no such approaches to sanctification will ever achieve the transformation of character for which we long. Such approaches make us worse off than we were before we even put forth effort toward victory. Looking at ourselves, our own efforts, and our own sin will never make us like Jesus.5 It goes without saying, then, that if we behold the world and all the sinfulness it offers, we will be transformed into the image of the rebellious one, Satan. When we yield our wills to sin by beholding the world in which it thrives (e.g., watching pornography; listening to music that uses vile language, objectifies other human beings [often women], and promotes violence; or playing video games that glorify violence and sexually immoral behavior) then our hearts and minds are molded further into the image of the world. That is why it is so important, as an act of faith, to guard our five senses (i.e., taste, touch, see, hear, and smell), the avenues to the soul. We should not give our attention to things that do not fit harmoniously with the principles listed in Phil 4:8, ESV. "Finally, brothers [and sisters], whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." How difficult it is for us in these violent and perverse days to keep our hearts and minds clean from the filth of this world! Yet as we continually, daily submit our will unto Jesus by faith and behold him, the Holy Spirit will empower and strengthen us to live a life of purity. I want you to try a little experiment at home that will impress this point further. Grab a broom from your closet and attempt to balance it vertically, with the bristles pointing upward. Place the "stick" end of the broom on the palm of your hand with your fingers outstretched so they are flat. Can you get it to balance? Be careful not to break something valuable in your home. When you fail or succeed, notice where your eyes were looking. When trying this, most people will naturally focus their eyes on the "stick" end of the broom at the point where it rests upon the palm of the hand. When looking at the palm, the broom will fall within a few seconds every time. However, if one concentrates their eyes upward, focusing on the bristles, he or she can potentially balance the broom for an exceptionally long time. If we look at ourselves and sin, we are sure to fall further into selfishness and sin, as the broom does when the one trying to balance it looks at the palm of his or her hand. However, if we look up, focusing our eyes of faith on the author and finisher of our faith, Jesus Christ, then we will stand victorious, as the broom remains upright on the palm of the one who looks up at its bristles. By beholding we become changed. Look up! Behold Jesus!


Notes 1 This is not to say that the magisterial reformers had no doctrine of sanctification, but that Wesley's expositions on sanctification were much more developed and emphatic than the Protestant reformers that preceded him. 2 Ellen G. White, "Consecration and Diligence in Christian Workers," Advent Review and Sabbath Herald 61.26 (June 24, 1884): 401. 3 Idem, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1911), 555. 4 White commented, "Man will never rise higher than his standard of purity or goodness or truth. If self is his loftiest ideal, he will never attain to anything more exalted. Rather, he will constantly sink lower and lower. The grace of God alone has power to exalt man. Left to himself, his course must inevitably be downward" (ibid.). 5 White also pointed out that looking at others would mold us into their image. She wrote, "By beholding, we become changed. If we allow the mind to dwell upon the imperfections and moral deformities of others, we ourselves shall become depraved in character, and mentally one-sided and unbalanced. But if the mind dwells upon the perfect life of Christ, and the thoughts and conversation are centered upon him, we shall be changed to the same image" ("Home Missionary Work," The Signs of the Times [May 4, 1888]: n.p.). Similarly, she penned elsewhere, "Many make the mistake of dwelling upon the defects of others. This is liable to result in their becoming as bad as those whom they criticize and condemn. 'By beholding we become changed.' 2 Corinthians 3:18" (Sermon/"Simon Peter, a servant ... ," Washington, DC, April 30, 1904 [Manuscript 108, 1904], Ellen G. White Estate, Silver Spring, MD).

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