A Systematic Case for Adventist Engagement in Christian Benevolence
Leaving off a thorough discussion of terminology, I have chosen to use the term “Christian Benevolence” as opposed to “social justice” in this paper. This will help me avoid certain nuances associated with the term “social justice” that I may not agree with. For instance, implied in the very term “social justice” is the disapprobation of the variation in social distributions of wealth and opportunities. However, Christ’s declaration in Mark 14:7, “Ye have the poor with you always,” presents a world where the Christians obligation is not so much to eradicate poverty, as it is to relate to that reality in the manner prescribed by the Bible.
Notably, beyond a descriptive statement that poverty will always exist on the earth, Christ’s statement in Mark 14:7, indicates a lack of intention, on God’s part, to end the current state of earthly affairs. This quote from the writings of Ellen White further clarifies this point:
“In the providence of God events have been so ordered that the poor are always with us, in order that there may be a constant exercise in the human heart of the attributes of mercy and love” (The Signs of the Times, June 13, 1892).
This is not to be misinterpreted as God creating social inequity. The Bible makes it clear in James 1:17 that “every good and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” Rather, the presence of poverty is akin to God’s declaration to Adam after he had sinned in Genesis 3:17, “…cursed is the ground for thy sake….” The ground was cursed because Adam sinned, but in the very curse, God would bring a blessing to Adam. This concept is best summarized in this quote from the Spirit of Prophecy:
“It is transgression of God’s law—the law of love—that has brought woe and death. Yet even amid the suffering that results from sin, God’s love is revealed. It is written that God cursed the ground for man’s sake (Genesis 3:17). The thorn and the thistle—the difficulties and trials that make his life one of toil and care—were appointed for his good as a part of the training needful in God’s plan for his uplifting from the ruin and degradation that sin has wrought” (Steps to Christ, p. 9).
There are lessons God intends for us to learn through the experience of having the poor with us always. Not least of all, and central in fact, is the development of a Christ-like character. Whether one is rich or poor, Christ has given an example to be emulated in the development of our characters.
Jesus was the richest man that ever lived. “All things,” Colossians 1:16 declares, “were created by Him, and for Him.” Furthermore, Romans 11:36 asserts, “For of Him, and through Him, and to Him, are all things.” Yet when it came time for Him to be born, Scripture records in Luke 2:6–8, that Mary “brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” He left the majesty of heaven for a paltry manger.
As Christ grew in “wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52), He still chose to cast His lot with the poor. When approached by “a certain scribe” who wanted to follow him, Jesus warned that “foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20). The One who owns the universe understands the plight of the homeless. Be it in suffering or prosperity, Christ has left us the perfect example to follow.
For the individual in a more favorable situation, the lessons to be learnt are those of mercy and love. According to the Spirit of Prophecy:
“Take away suffering and need, and we should have no way of understanding the mercy and love of God, no way of knowing the compassionate, sympathetic heavenly Father” (Testimonies, vol. 7, p. 226).
Our interaction with the less fortunate is a practical lesson that develops the attributes of God’s love and mercy in our lives. Moreover, it is imperative for any Christian who finds themselves in a position of advantage to engage in Christian Benevolence in accordance with the principle of stewardship.
Inasmuch as “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof…” (Ps. 24:1), the Christian recognizes themselves as a mere steward of that which belongs to God. Their possessions, then, are theirs as a trust from God, which they are to employ in accomplishing His will. While one may have worked to acquire their riches, they realize that even the strength to labor was supplied by God, and as such, they hold their wealth in trust from Him. The following passage clearly articulates this concept:
“Those who have acquired riches have acquired them through the exercise of the talents that were given them of God, but these talents for the acquiring for property were given to them that they might relieve those who are in poverty” (The Signs of the Times, June 13, 1892).
Demonstrating the selflessness and benevolence that earned him the title of “a man after God’s own heart,” the Bible states that “David perceived that the Lord had established him king over Israel, and that he had exalted his kingdom for his people Israel’s sake” (2 Sam. 5:12). David recognized that his position was given him as a trust for the blessing of others.
Just as God is abundantly capable of evangelizing the world all by Himself, or tasking angels with the responsibility, but instead chooses to employ mankind to reach their fellow mankind, so He has chosen to entrust the responsibility of relieving suffering to humanity.
“God has made men His stewards, and He is not to be charged with the sufferings, the misery, the nakedness, and the want of humanity” (The Review and Herald, June 26, 1894).
Christians, as God’s stewards, are to have a sense of personal responsibility to meet the needs they see around them. This is of such importance to God that it delineates between those who inherit God’s kingdom and those who are cast into everlasting fire (cf. Matt. 25:31–46). Illustrating the same point, Ellen White writes:
“God weighs actions, and everyone who has been unfaithful in his stewardship, who has failed to remedy evils which were in his power to remedy, will be of no esteem in the courts of heaven” (The Review and Herald, December 10, 1895).
The biblical doctrine of stewardship, therefore, enjoins the Christian’s participation in Christian Benevolence. The material blessings that God gives to us are given as both a trust and a test. If, like the rich young ruler of Matthew 19:16–22, we cling to our material possessions when God asks us to give to the poor, we shall fail of receiving eternal life.
“The Lord tests men by giving them an abundance of good things, just as He tested the rich man of the parable. If we prove ourselves unfaithful in the unrighteous mammon, who shall entrust to us the true riches?” (The Review and Herald, June 26, 1894).
Stewardship of material possessions, then, serves as both an opportunity to develop a Christ-like character, and a test of our character.
“Angels of God are watching to see how we treat these persons who need our sympathy, love and disinterested benevolence. This is God’s test of our character” (Testimonies, vol. 3 p. 511).
Not alone are lessons to be learnt by individuals possessing means. There are lessons in the plight of the under-privileged as well. Peter’s epistles were written to the church under persecution. Notably, he introduces the motif of suffering right from the onset, representing God as working through those trials to perfect a character fit for heaven; he says, “that the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:7). Through trials one’s character is refined:
“The trials of life are God’s workmen, to remove the impurities ad roughness from our character” (Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, p. 23, 24).
In this light, we are admonished to “count it all joy” whenever faced with trials, recognizing that the trying of our faith “worketh patience” (James 1:3).
Thus, whether in wealth or in want, God has a work of character development to accomplish in us. Our life on earth is but preparation for eternal life in heaven and the chief work in that preparation is the development of a Christ-like character. Says Ellen White:
“The life on earth is the beginning of the life in heaven; education on earth is an initiation into the principles of heaven; the lifework here is a training for the lifework there” (Education, p. 307).
“The harvest of life is character, and it is this that determines destiny, both for this life and for the life to come” (Education, p. 108).
So as concerns our eternal destiny in the light of character development, it is imperative for the Christian to participate in Christian Benevolence.
“Character building is the most important work ever entrusted to human beings; and never before was its diligent study so important as now” (Education, p. 225).
To summarize the role that working for Christian Benevolence has in the development of character for the church:
“While the world needs sympathy, while it needs the prayers and assistance of God’s people, while it needs to see Christ in the lives of His followers, the people of God are equally in need of opportunities that draw out their sympathies, give efficiency to their prayers, and develop in them a character like that of the divine pattern.
“It is to provide these opportunities that God has placed among us the poor, the unfortunate, the sick, and the suffering. They are Christ’s legacy to His church, and they are to be cared for as He would care for them. In this way God takes away the dross and purifies the gold, giving us that culture of heart and character which we need” (Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 261).
This work of character development, and consequently the work of Christian Benevolence, gains an urgency for a people anticipating an imminent second advent of Christ. Moreover, the connection of Christian Benevolence with the Sabbath message and the proclamation of the Three Angels’ Messages, binds it inextricably with the identity of Seventh-day Adventists. Isaiah chapter fifty-eight makes this inescapable connection.
Sabbath and Christian Benevolence
The opening to the 58th chapter of Isaiah, “Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet…” underscore the exigency of the chapter’s message. Its target audience is there identified as God’s people. Moreover, Ellen White points out that this message has special bearing on the Remnant Church living in the time of the end:
“We are not left in doubt as to where the message applies, and the time of its marked fulfillment…God’s memorial, the seventh-day Sabbath, the sign of His work in creating the world, has been displaced by the man of sin. God’s people have a special work to do in repairing the breach that has been made in His law; and the nearer we approach the end, the more urgent this work becomes” (Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 265).
Markedly, after the fourth century AD, Christianity as a whole gradually strayed from the Bible as the standard rule for faith and practice, thus forming a gulf between God’s will as expressed in His Word and His people. Then as the reformation’s sola–tota–prima Scriptura principle developed, there was seen a progressive return to God’s Word – a building up of “the old waste places…” and a repairing of the breach (Isa. 58:12). Of special note was the ‘discovery’ of the seventh-day Sabbath.
After having studied the Bible’s teaching on the Sabbath and taking a stand to keep it holy, Ellen White received a vision in which the Sabbath was highlighted. An excerpt is here recounted:
“In the holiest I saw an ark…In the ark was the golden pot of manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tables of stone which folded together like a book. Jesus opened them, and I saw the ten commandments written on them with the finger of God. On one table were four, and on the other six. The four on the first table shone brighter than the other six. But the fourth, the Sabbath commandment, shone above them all; for the Sabbath was set apart to be kept in honor of God’s holy name. The holy Sabbath looked glorious—a halo of glory was all around it. I saw that the Sabbath commandment was not nailed to the cross. If it was, the other nine commandments were; and we are at liberty to break them all, as well as to break the fourth. I saw that God had not changed the Sabbath, for He never changes. But the pope had changed it from the seventh to the first day of the week; for he was to change times and laws” (Early Writings, p. 32).
In several official documents, the Catholic Church takes credit for having transferred the Sabbath from the seventh day to the first. Yet, notably, the observance of Sunday as a day of worship has remained ubiquitous, even in protestant Christianity. Thence, the preaching of Sabbath observance becomes primal to the work of repairing the breach.
Pivotal to the mission of the Seventh-day Adventist church, whose mission it is to proclaim the Three Angels’ Messages, is the Sabbath commandment. The first Angel’s message admonishes us to worship the Creator God with language that harkens back to the fourth commandment: “…worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters” (Rev. 14:7; cf. Exod. 20:11). Hence, Isaiah 58:13, 14 holds great importance for Seventh-day Adventists. However, this Sabbath text must not be seen in a vacuum. It evolves from the immediate context of the entire chapter which decries the transgression of God’s people.
Isaiah begins with a description of the activities of God’s people and one might objectively consider these to be good activities. They “seek [God] daily, and delight to know [His] ways, as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinance of their God: they ask of [God] the ordinances of justice; they take delight in approaching to God” (Isa. 58:2). In spite of their religiosity, though, they find themselves lacking the spiritual benefits they hoped to achieve. “Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? Wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge?” (Isa. 58:3).
Here is presented a dissonant Christian experience. These followers of God are doing everything prescribed by their religion and yet finding no peace. They find that there is yet something lacking from their assurance of salvation. This is akin to the situation the rich young ruler, referenced earlier in this paper, finds himself in. His question: “What good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” (Matt. 19:16). When Jesus responds with a recitation of a segment of the Decalogue, the rich young ruler retorts, “All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?” (Matt. 19:20).
It is no coincidence that Christ offers the same remedy to the rich young ruler as He does to His people in the book of Isaiah. To the rich young ruler He says, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow Me” (Matt. 19:21). To obey this command would require a change, not only of outward form, on the part of the rich young ruler, but of priorities and values as well—a change of heart. Commenting on this encounter, Ellen White asserts:
“The Redeemer longed to create in him that discernment which would enable him to see the necessity of heart devotion and Christian goodness. He longed to see in him a humble and contrite heart, conscious of the supreme love to be given to God, and hiding its lack in the perfection of Christ” (Desire of Ages, p. 519).
When God asks His people, in Isaiah 58, “to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and they [they] break every yoke…to deal bread to the hungry and that [they] bring the poor that are cast out to [their] house…” it is not to merely add another list of religious obligations for them to fulfill. We might be left to think so if it were not for the connection God then makes between participation in Christian Benevolence and Sabbath observance.
To a list of postulates concerning activity in Christian Benevolence beginning in verse nine of Isaiah 58, God adds one about the Sabbath that illuminates the essence of what it means for the Christian to be involved in Christian Benevolence. On the Sabbath, one is to cease from their own activities and focus on God’s activity as Creator and Redeemer.
“To all who receive the Sabbath as a sign of Christ’s creative and redeeming power, it will be a delight. Seeing Christ in it, they delight themselves in Him. The Sabbath points them to the works of creation as an evidence of His mighty power in redemption” (Desire of Ages, p. 289).
This cessation of man’s work and focus on God’s work enjoined by Sabbath observance is a weekly enactment of the principle of righteousness by faith. All a Christian has to do is enter into spiritual rest through faith. Paul articulates this concept beautifully in chapters three and four of the book of Hebrews. Below is a table outlining the four elements he discusses. He speaks about the literal Israelites travelling to Canaan, their place of rest, and he juxtaposes that with their ability to attain to spiritual rest. Likewise, he makes an analogous case for Christians, or spiritual Israel, gleaning lessons from the experience of the Children of Israel.
Literal rest (Canaan/Heaven)
Table 1: Four elements discussed in Hebrews 3 and 4
Paul makes the link between the seventh day Sabbath and “rest” under discussion in Hebrews 3 and 4 in verse 4 of chapter 4: “For he spake in a certain place of the seventh day on this wise, And God did rest the seventh day from all his works.” Clearly, the entering into Sabbath rest that Christians experience every week then, points to the daily experience of resting in God’s salvation and the confidence that He will bring us into eternal rest in Heaven.
Bringing this discussion back to Isaiah 58, God contrasts the works that the “house of Jacob” is putting forth in verses 3–5, with the rest they should experience as typified by Sabbath observance at the end of the chapter (vv. 13, 14). Sandwiched between this contrast is a picture of the life of an individual who is living out the Sabbath rest on a daily basis. “But how is this different from the picture you see in verses 3–5?” one might ask. “Do not verses 6–12 prescribe more activities/works that one must do? And if that is the case, how could we call more work, rest?”
To address these questions, we turn to Matthew 25:31–46. In this narrative is presented an account of judgment where one’s involvement in Christian Benevolence is central. As is stated in Romans chapter 2, “And thinkest thou this, O man, … that thou shalt escape the judgment of God?… Who will render to every man according to his deeds…” (vv. 3, 6). Clearly, God judges men by their deeds. And yet, this is contrasted in the very next chapter that, “…by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight…” (Rom. 3:20). So there is an apparent breach between the standard of judgment—our works—and our ability to reach that standard—keeping the law. It is the classic faith/works debate. A debate for which Jesus is the answer.
When Christ rewards the sheep on His right hand, in Matthew 25, for their acts of Christian Benevolence, they respond with incredulity, “Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? Or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger and took thee in, or naked and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?” (Matt. 25:37–39). Apparently, their service was not motivated by a desire for reward or recognition because they performed these acts in anonymity and to the “least of these…” (Matt. 25:40). Their behavior was driven by their character rather than by any other external motivator.
On the other hand, the goats’ response reveals that they would have participated in Christian Benevolence if they had known that it was crucial for their salvation. In essence they say, “had we known it was You, Jesus, all along, in the poor and helpless, we would have done something about it…” Rather than a transformed character underlying their actions, they would serve the underprivileged in order to ensure that they were meeting all the requirements necessary to inherit God’s Kingdom. Christ’s response in verse 45, “Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me” reveals the insufficiency of this brand of Christian Benevolence.
The only Christian Benevolence that is acceptable to God, is that which emanates from a character that is transformed into the likeness of Christ. Religious activities like church attendance and personal Bible study are meant to serve only as mediums for this transformation to occur. Second Corinthians 3:18 summarizes the principle as such, “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” A simple Bible study can establish the connection between God’s glory, His law, and His character. Thus by beholding the character of God through religious practice, the Christian is to be transformed into the same likeness. The transformation is such that the Christian’s treatment of the lowliest in situations least likely to be recognized is exemplary of Christ’s character.
Thus, Jesus is the answer to the faith/works dilemma. As James succinctly summarizes it in James 2:18, “Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.” The Isaiah 58:6–12 picture is an outworking of a faith-filled Sabbath experience as outlined in verses 13 and 14, which was the very intent of the round of religious activities listed in verses 2–5. And Isaiah 58 so connects Sabbath observance with Christian Benevolence that it cannot be divorced from a Seventh-day Adventist’s identity. In the words of Ellen White:
“The fifty-eighth chapter of Isaiah contains present truth for the people of God. Here we see how medical missionary work and the gospel ministry are to be bound together as the message is given to the world. Upon those who keep the Sabbath of the Lord is laid the responsibility of doing a work of mercy and benevolence. Medical missionary work is to be bound up with the message, and sealed with the seal of God” (Manuscript 22, 1901).
In the same vein, Ellen White’s vision of 1847 in Topsham, ME, highlights the connection of the Sabbath doctrine with that of the Sanctuary. In summary, she saw within the Most Holy Place of the heavenly Sanctuary, a halo over the Sabbath commandment, underscoring its importance in the great controversy as it unfolds at the end of time.
Moreover, inasmuch as the Sabbath is a critical element of the Three Angels’ Messages, and thus a fundamental aspect of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s mission, Christian Benevolence lies at the core of this church’s mission. It is no wonder, then, that Ellen White remarks:
“Both home and foreign missions should be conducted in connection with the ministry of the word. The medical missionary work is not to be carried forward as something apart from the work of the gospel ministry…The two lines of work must not be separated. Satan will invent every possible scheme to separate those whom God is seeking to make one. We must not be misled by his devices. The medical missionary work is to be connected with the third angel’s message as the hand is connected with the body; and the education of students in medical missionary lines is not complete unless they are trained to work in connection with the church and the ministry” (Counsels on Health, p. 557).
A discussion of Christian Benevolence as an optional addendum to the requirements for Christian compliance would be misguided at its foundation because Christian Benevolence is actually central to the Seventh-day Adventist’s identity. Furthermore, it is so integrated into the fabric of our doctrines that to dispute it would mean to refute core beliefs that define the Seventh-day Adventist Church as God’s remnant Church.