What Sin Is All About

Conversations About God 2:2

A crisis of distrust developed in God’s universal family. As we reviewed earlier, our heavenly Father has been accused of being unworthy of our trust. Specifically, He has been accused of being arbitrary, exacting, vengeful, unforgiving, and severe. And thus sin entered our universe for the first time. For the Bible, sin is much more than a mere breaking of the rules, serious as that might be. In its essence, sin is a violation of mutual trust. It is a breakdown of trust and trustworthiness, a stubborn unwillingness to listen to the One who is so eager to help us in our predicament.

Doesn’t the Bible specifically state, however, that sin is breaking the rules? How about the key text we’ve learned from childhood up, “Sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4, KJV)? Actually, that’s a rather free translation. The Greek word that John used is anomia, and it means, literally, lawlessness. “Everyone who commits sin commits lawlessness; sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4, Williams). In other words, sin is described as a state of mind, an attitude. And anyone in that state of mind is a continuing threat to the peace and security of the universal family. Sin will not have been truly dealt with until our lawlessness has either been changed or eliminated. Sin begins with a lawless, rebellious state of mind.

The hazard of regarding sin primarily as breaking the rules is that such a mindset tends to encourage an impersonal, even fearful relationship with God. If we regard sin as primarily a breaking of the rules, God’s commandments may be misunderstood as arbitrary regulations designed to show His authority and test our willingness to obey. If we obey, we’re rewarded. If we disobey, we’re destroyed. Do you want to live under those circumstances?

Since we all have sinned, should we be fearfully awaiting the execution of the sentence? Or have we been spared because God found some legal way to give us yet another chance? And if we turn down that second chance, will He punish us with even greater severity for our ingratitude? Would such an understanding help produce the peace and the freedom from fear that God desires so much in His universal family?

Actually though, if rightly understood, there is a sense in which one can say that sin is a breaking of the rules. Let’s look again God’s commandments, particularly the Decalogue. All those Ten Commandments ultimately require is that we love God and we love each other (Matt 22:36-40). And if we really did that we would have peace and freedom. In fact, in the tenth of the Ten Commandments it says that we should not even want to sin. If we lived in that state of mind, not even wanting to do anything unloving, we would have freedom to be sure, and all kinds of peace and good will.

But can love actually be commanded? Or produced by force or by fear? To put it vividly, has God said to us children, “You either love Me, and love each other, or I’ll have to kill you. Do I make Myself clear?” Have you husbands ever tried that on your wives and children? Did it work? Imagine your wives and children trembling in front of you and saying in unison, “Oh, yes, daddy. We love you very much.” Would you be pleased? Would you be satisfied? If so, then you’re a brute. And the God some of us worship would never settle for that.

Having said that, we all must admit that the Bible is full of references to law, discipline, punishment and rewards, even final fiery destruction. And since our purpose in this series is always to look at the Bible as a whole, not just “here a little and there a little,” we must look at all these other passages seriously. In fact, several chapters of this book will be devoted to God’s wide use of law and why Jesus indeed had to die. And we will talk about how, in reality, God’s law is no threat to our freedom! To understand that is really the truth that sets us free.

Going back to the beginning, sin entered our universe when angels ceased to trust. As a consequence, they themselves became untrustworthy. James 4:17 offers a familiar definition: “Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin (RSV).” It is rebellious to act that way. It is lawless to act that way. Anyone who behaves like that is certainly not trustworthy to have around in a free universe.

Look at Romans 14:23 in several, different versions: “Any action that is not based on faith is a sin.” (Moffat) “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin (RSV).” “When we act apart from our faith we sin (Phillips).” In a text from the book of Ezra (10:2), the Jews who returned from Babylonian captivity are confessing that they have done several things that they should not have done. But they describe their misbehaviors in these words: “We have broken faith with our God (RSV).” “We have been unfaithful to our God (NIV).” These texts underline that the essence of sin is a breach of faith; it’s a breakdown of trust and trustworthiness.

Chapter 2: “What Went Wrong in God’s Universe”

This blog begins chapter two of the book in process Conversations About God. It originated as a series of lectures of Graham Maxwell in 1984. After each lecture Maxwell took written questions from the audience mediated through the pastor of the Loma Linda University Church at the time, Lou Venden. This marvelous series has never been put into book form, so I am attempting to do so and sharing the results in progress here with permission from the Maxwell family. The words that followed are Maxwell’s oral presentation, edited by me.

In the previous chapter we summarized the war that broke out in Heaven, as described in Revelation 12. This conflict within God’s family began right in His very presence, in the mind of God’s most honored and trusted angel. This raised the question, What really went wrong in God’s universe? This question is important because understanding what went wrong helps us to understand the methods God is using to put right the things that have gone wrong. We often call these methods “The Plan of Salvation.” As we noted in the last chapter, we’re accustomed to thinking of the plan of salvation as God’s gracious provision to save you, me, and other sinners on this planet. But in the larger view of the great controversy, the plan of salvation is God’s way of setting right what went wrong in the whole universe, and setting it right in such a way that it will never go wrong again.

What really did go wrong? To begin with, it helps to consider what made things go so right before the war in heaven began. Before the war there was peace. There was peace because all the members of God’s vast family trusted each other. They trusted their heavenly Father. And He in turn could safely trust in them. Where you have that kind of mutual trust and trustworthiness, there is perfect peace, perfect freedom, and perfect security.

Questions and Answers (1:5)

Lou Venden: Human beings have a tendency to focus on our own salvation. You have referred to how our salvation needs to be seen in the larger perspective. What I’m wondering is, how does this perspective affect Christian belief in general? Does it make a difference?

Graham Maxwell: I don’t think it minimizes our Christian beliefs in any way, it rather makes them more significant. As I mentioned earlier, the gospel takes on a much broader meaning in the larger view. But that’s not all. Some of us regard the Sabbath as a privilege to observe and a great blessing. A typical approach to the Sabbath is preoccupied with what God has done for our own salvation and what God has done for this planet. But if you limit your understanding to this planet, then the Sabbath was given before sin. And as such it is merely a test of our obedience, to show God’s authority and test our willingness to obey.

In the larger view, however, the Sabbath was given to man after sin entered the universe. Then it’s no longer an arbitrary test of obedience. It’s a great gift that God gave to remind us of all the things the Bible associates with the Sabbath. Things like the freedom and the perfection of Eden, and the freedom that He gave to all of His creatures. God’s rescue of His people in the Exodus. And then the events of crucifixion week. The seventh-day Sabbath is connected with all of those.

Similarly, the law in the larger view is God’s emergency measure to help us. Paul specifically says that in Galatians 3:19. Take, for example the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They were not to eat the fruit of that tree in the garden. In the narrower view, which is preoccupied with what God has done for us on this planet, God said, “don’t touch that tree” before sin. And that would simply be a test of their obedience, or so it’s often explained. But in the larger, great controversy view, they were told not to go near that tree after sin entered the universe. With that in mind, the tree was not so much a test of obedience as something given to protect us. You see, God permitted Satan to tempt Adam and Eve, but Satan was only allowed to approach them at the tree. God was not limiting them, He was limiting Satan! You see, the more one takes the larger view, the less arbitrary God’s requirements, measures, and provisions look. He simply looks a whole lot better in the great controversy view.

Lou: This definitely helps us understand the reason and the meaning behind God’s actions and, at times, lack of action. But this leads me to one final question, “If God won the war at Calvary, then why isn’t it over? Why is it still going on? In fact, why didn’t it end when God threw Satan and his angels out of heaven?”

Graham: Obviously the expulsion of Satan from heaven was a victory, a physical victory. But God was not satisfied with that alone. There were still unresolved questions and wonderings among His family. And so He waited. But when Jesus said, “It’s finished,” something was finished. And Revelation indicates He was recognized in heaven as having won the war (Rev 5:6-14). So why does He still wait? Is it that the war has been won in the minds of His children throughout the universe, but not here on this planet? We’re still trying to make up our minds. And it’s essential that we not only make up our minds, but be so settled into it that we cannot be moved during the terrible events that will happen before the second coming. It is in mercy that He waits.

Lou: I’m sure we’ll have more on this as the series progresses. Tell us about the next chapter.

Graham: The next chapter deals with the question, “What Went Wrong in God’s Universe?” What went wrong in the family? It will be a fresh look at sin in the larger setting of the great controversy. Sin is much more than just breaking the rules, it is a breakdown of trust and trustworthiness. This will take us to the heart of the issue in the war. Until we know what’s gone wrong, how can we understand God’s efforts to set things right?

Note from Jon Paulien: This blog concludes chapter one of Conversations About God, my edited transcript of a 1984 series of lectures followed by questions involving Graham Maxwell and then-pastor Lou Venden. I will begin sharing chapter two shortly.

Questions and Answers (1:4)

Lou Venden: Graham, you mentioned that Martin Luther couldn’t see this larger perspective of the cosmic war perspective and that he had trouble with the book of Revelation. Why do you suppose he had that kind of trouble?

Graham Maxwell: Why don’t we read it his own words, from his Preface to the book of Revelation, in English translation of course. “The book of Revelation approximates the fourth book of Esdras. I can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it.” And he gives his reasons. As he looked at it, “Christ is neither known nor taught in the book of Revelation,” even though it’s “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.” And we know what his policy was for evaluating books in the Bible, because in the Preface to James he wrote, “Any book that inculcates Christ deserves to be in the Bible. Whatever does not teach Christ is not even apostolic.” If even Peter or Paul should write a book, it’s not apostolic if it doesn’t teach Christ. And a little later on he writes, “This is the principle that I use in my evaluation of books.” We have a name for that: the “Christomonistic principle.” That’s the “Christ alone” principle. If I don’t find Christ in the book, then it doesn’t belong in the canon. That’s a very good principle in theory. But what if the one making the evaluation doesn’t have a full picture of Christ? Based on his picture of Christ, Luther was ready to rule out four books of the Bible.

Lou: Rather than letting these books expand his understanding and picture of Christ.

Graham: Yes. It was a little backwards for Luther to do it that way. But when you think of the many wonderful things he did, I suppose we should allow him that. But based on what we know today, can we find Christ in the book of Revelation? I think so. So on the Christomonistic principle which Luther laid down, I take all sixty-six books seriously. The principle’s alright, but we’ve made a little progress since then.

Lou: And that would be supported by the book of Revelation’s own claim to be the “revelation of Jesus Christ.”

Graham: Right at the beginning (Rev 1:1). And look at the whole first chapter. It’s all about Christ, in His human form. And later on in the book, it’s about how He’s coming back and what He’s doing in the Heavenly Sanctuary. The book of Revelation is full of Him.

Lou: But now, Graham, in our reading in the book of Revelation, which you shared with us, it seems so clear; there’s a statement here that war broke out in heaven, and so on. But I’m wondering—how widely is this perspective shared by the Christian world in general? That is, the idea of a war, and the great controversy, this “larger view”, as you refer to it.

Graham: It’s strange that not many know about this. It’s as if there is a conspiracy of silence. Yet we’re finding more and more people in the nineteenth century and earlier who did see glimpses of this larger view. Since college days I’ve always enjoyed Milton– Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained. There’s part of the picture there, not the full picture.

One of the best at expressing a larger view was a preacher named Henry Melvill, who lived in England in the mid-nineteenth century. He was a magnificent preacher, and his wife used to neatly write out his sermons for him to present in no less a place than St. Paul’s cathedral in London. Melvill preached about a crisis among the angels, how they needed their loyalty confirmed by the very things God revealed through the death of Jesus. And Melvill was no minor figure, after his death, he was buried in St. Paul’s cathedral, an honor restricted to a very few.

One person who particularly enjoyed his writings was Ellen White. She had his book in her library. I don’t know anyone to this day who has expressed the larger view as well as Ellen White. Her work was based on all sixty-six Bible books and reading the marvelous writings of Melvill and others. Let’s look at one place where she lays out this larger view:

But the plan of redemption had a much broader and deeper purpose, broader and deeper than the salvation of man. It was not for this alone that Christ came to the earth. It was not merely that the inhabitants of this little world might regard the law of God as it should be regarded, but it was to vindicate the character of God before the universe. To this result of His great sacrifice, that is its influence on the intelligences of other worlds, as well as upon man, the Savior looked forward, when just before His crucifixion, He said, “Now is the judgment of this world. Now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all unto Me.” The act of Christ in dying for the salvation of man would not only make heaven accessible to men, but before all the universe it would justify God and His Son in their dealing with the rebellion of Satan. It would establish the perpetuity of the law of God, and would reveal the nature and the results of sin. (Patriarchs and Prophets, 68-69)

The statement of Jesus that she quoted above is from John 12:31-32. Although the King James Bible says “draw all men” here, Ellen White leaves the word men out in this quotation. She says simply “draw all,” which points to a much larger view of things. While there were saints through the years who spoke about this larger view, Ellen White is the one who summed it up the best to date, and seemed to understand it the most clearly.

Questions and Answers (1:3)

In the original conversations, Graham Maxwell delivered a monologue on each topic and then Lou Vended (pastor of the Loma Linda University Church at the time) followed up with his own questions triggered by the monologue and questions written down by people in the audience. The questions and answers sometimes ramble, as conversations do, but they are always interesting.

Lou Venden: Here’s a question related to the war in heaven. What about the angel who seems to start the war, the one named “Day Star” or Lucifer? If God knew that there would be all this trouble, and that Lucifer would be at the center of it, why did He create Lucifer?

Graham Maxwell: That, of course, raises the question whether God does know everything in the future. And there are good saints who wonder about that. I would rather find an explanation that would allow me to say God can see the end from the beginning. The past, the present, and the future: they’re all alike to Him. And yet I’m still free. My understanding would be that when God created Lucifer, He knew what Lucifer would do. And yet He went ahead anyway. He knew what it would cost Him. He knew what it would cost His children. And yet He went ahead. And when you think of the anguish that has been involved in solving this problem and settling this war, there must be something of infinite value at stake, or God would not have done this.

He certainly had other options that might have seemed easier. When Lucifer began to entertain these rebellious thoughts, God could have eliminated him right there and then. What damage would that have done? Well, the angels looking on might think, “I’d better not have bad thoughts or I might get eliminated, too.” But after eliminating Lucifer, God could then have blotted out all memory of the elimination so no one would know. And He could do that an infinite number of times and no one would know but God.

So why didn’t He do it? Is it that He couldn’t live with the fact that He was doing that? Or is it that He wants us to know what He did do? He definitely did not to take a shortcut. He allowed Lucifer to develop these thoughts, and to spread them among the angels, knowing what it would cost Him and cost His friends on this planet. We’ve all participated a little in the larger view. But knowing the thousands of years it would take, and all the misunderstanding and the anguish, God said “I will go ahead anyway.” And the angels understand this and tell Him, “You did this magnificently. And we’re with you for the rest of eternity.” So what was at stake in this decision? That’s the big thing.

Lou: This perspective that you’re sharing here and throughout this book includes a war, a crisis of distrust, and whether God can be trusted!

Graham: Right. It’s not about power. If it was about God’s power, He could have settled things in a second. It would be easy to show that God is more powerful than Satan. In fact, such a demonstration is hardly necessary, since even the devil is already convinced. James tells us that when the devil thinks about the power of the One who hung the whole vast universe in space, it scares him. He shudders with fear (James 2:19). So I don’t think we should spend too much time arguing about God’s power. Of course He’s infinite in majesty and power. The conflict is not over who has the power, but over who’s telling the truth. God has been accused of abusing His power.

Questions and Answers (1:2)

Lou Venden: We should not use the idea of God’s sovereignty as an excuse to ignore issues related to His character.

Graham Maxwell: I think where that idea really comes from is Romans 9, where you have the verse, “who are you to question God? Who are you to answer back to God?” (Rom 9:14-26, especially 20-21) But Romans 9, I believe, has been misunderstood by some very saintly people, including a notable theologian in reformation days. One really needs to put Romans 9 in the whole context of Romans —certainly in the context of chapters 1 through 9.

In Romans 1-8, Paul has been saying to his audience (which is made up of both Jews and Gentiles) “I have great good news for you. God will save all who trust Him—whether you are Jew or Gentile, bond or free, male or female. He’ll save everybody who trusts Him.” And as Paul was developing chapters 1-8, he could sense that certain members of His audience (descended from Abraham) were not taking this too kindly, because they thought that they had a special relationship with God. It was as if God had made a deal with their ancestor in their behalf. That’s why they were so concerned with things like their genealogy.

When Paul got to the end of chapter 8, therefore, he sensed that some of his readers would be quite offended. So in essence he turned to them and said, “I sense that some of you don’t like what I’ve said, that God is the kind of God that would save all who trust Him. But when you think that way, aren’t you suggesting that you would run the universe better than God? Are you saying God cannot save all who trust Him? Let me tell you something: God is going to run this universe precisely as He wishes. Just as the potter takes a lump of clay, and makes of the same clay a vessel for honor, and a vessel for dishonor (Rom 9:21), so God has the right—if He wants to exercise it—to run His universe any way He likes!”

Some people take that out of context and say, “God takes the material we are all made of and makes some to be saved and some to be lost. So, what’s the use of trying to know Him at all? Our destiny has already been determined.” No, what Paul is saying in Romans 9 is that God has just as much authority as the potter—actually much more so. He created this universe. He’s going to run it precisely as He wishes. And He won’t ever change. You can count on it. Does Romans 9 mean that God is arbitrary? Not in the context of chapters 1-8 where Paul has already explained how God runs the universe. God is so infinitely gracious that He values nothing higher than our freedom, and will save all who trust Him. But He doesn’t expect us to trust Him as a stranger, so at infinite cost He has revealed the truth about Himself. And that’s what Paul’s implied audience didn’t like. So Paul is really saying in Romans 9, “You impudent, irreverent people. How dare you tell God how to run His universe! How does God run His universe? Please read Romans 1-8. God’s treatment of the universe is infinitely gracious.”

Lou: But that raises another question, why would a God who is infinitely powerful, who can run the universe any way He wants to, allow a conflict like the one we read about in the twelfth chapter of Revelation? Why would He allow a war in heaven to happen?

Graham: That’s a great question. If God has that much authority and power, how could a war in heaven even take place? This question is the reason why those who stress the sovereignty of God have great difficulty allowing for a war in heaven. And it’s the reason many of the reformers really couldn’t use that sixty-sixth book of the Bible. Luther, for example, says “it was fancied that there was a war.” He just couldn’t wrap his mind around the idea. But to me it’s one of the most wonderful things about God. Though He had the infinite power necessary to stop such a war before it even started, He did not do so. God must consider something else of far greater value than our mere submission to His power, because He allowed Lucifer’s rebellion in heaven to grow and grow. By secular standards of good administration, God was weak. It was bad management. I mean, how long would a pastor last in our church, if there was such chaos in the membership? The committee would meet!

Lou: The pastor would move on, wouldn’t he!

Graham: Yes. Shall we ask God to move on, then, because of weakness on His part? We know He has infinite power, yet He allowed this war to develop. He allowed the questions to arise. That tells me there is something of even greater importance to God than our mere submission to His infinite power.

Questions and Answers (1:1)

In the original conversations, Graham Maxwell delivered a monologue on each topic and then Lou Vended (pastor of the Loma Linda University Church at the time) followed up with his own questions triggered by the monologue and questions written down by people in the audience. The questions and answers sometimes ramble, as conversations do, but they are always interesting.

Lou Venden: We’re calling this book Conversations About God. But just above you said that Jesus is the one who reveals God; if we’ve seen Him, we’ve seen the Father. Then why shouldn’t this book be called “Conversations About Jesus”?

Graham Maxwell: I’ve run into that question several times. Since Jesus is the one who came to reveal the truth, why don’t we talk more about Him? This implies some interesting things. If we believe that Jesus Christ is God, when we talk about Christ we are talking about God anyway. If the whole purpose of His coming to this earth is to reveal the truth about His Father, He is also revealing the truth about Himself. So whether we talk about God or Christ, we’re talking about God. But I think it adds focus to our discussion to say that the ultimate question really is about God. It is God who came in human form as Christ; this is the ultimate method He used to reveal the truth about Himself. In a sense it is much ado about nothing when someone asks, “shall we talk about God, or shall we talk about Christ?”

Lou: If I’m hearing you rightly, you’re saying that Jesus Himself would really be happiest if we’re talking about the One He came to reveal.

Graham: I’m impressed that when Jesus was here, He would suggest, “Don’t look to Me, look to the Father” (see John 5:19, 30; 8:28-29; 14:6-11; 15:15; 16:26-27) It suggests to me that we should always outdo one another in giving honor. The Trinity does that. The Son is always outdoing Himself to give honor to the Father. But I have noticed that it comes back the other way as well—the Father gives the Son a name above every other name (Phil 2:9-11). And the Holy Spirit, in a self-effacing way, is always drawing our attention to the Father and the Son (John 4:23-24; 15:26; 16:13-14). The way those three divine persons behave is a model to us.

Lou: Here’s a related question: How can you really have a conversation about God? After all, how can we really know God? Take Paul’s statement in Romans 11:33 (RSV): “How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable are His ways.” If that’s the case, who are we to question? God is sovereign, so why should we be sitting here having conversations about God?”

Graham: Ah, who are we to question the inscrutable ways of God? And that’s in Romans. But we need to balance that with Romans 1:19-20, where Paul says (in my words) “you’re without excuse if you don’t know God.” So on the principle of taking the Bible as a whole, and not just “here a little and there a little,” I would have to put Romans 1 alongside Romans 11.

I think when Paul is saying that God’s thoughts are so far above ours (see also Isaiah 55:8-9), that is a reverent recognition that God is infinite. Think of all He knows! We’ll never fully understand God; we’re mere creatures. And at times we need to be reminded of His infinite superiority. But then it’s marvelous that the Infinite One would want to be known.

All through the Bible He says things like “Israel is destroyed because they don’t know Me” (see Hos 4:6) and “I’ve come to this earth that you may know Me” (see John 17:1-5). So it’s pretty clear God wants to be known. But we shouldn’t pretend we’re gods who could know everything that He knows.

The Larger View of the Gospel

Continuing chapter one of Conversations About God, by Graham Maxwell, edited from the oral text by Jon Paulien.

Conversations About God 1:5

So what is the message of the cross? Evidently it’s much more than the payment of a legal penalty so that somehow God can justly forgive you and me. The cross was also needed by the loyal angels. And this truly suggests that we ought to go back to the foot of the cross and join the family of the universe in watching closely just how Jesus died. We will listen very carefully to His words on the cross: “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken Me?” What does that mean? And how does that suffering and death restore peace to God’s family? I believe that in the great controversy, all Christian beliefs take on much broader significance.

The gospel most certainly is the good news about what God has done for me and you. But in the larger great controversy setting, the gospel is the truth about our gracious God. It is the truth that ends the war, confirms the loyalty of the universe, and wins some of us back to repentance and to trust. I believe that the most important of all our beliefs is the truth about God. God is not the kind of person His enemies have made Him out to be—arbitrary, vengeful, and severe. He is instead precisely what His Son revealed Him to be. We believe the testimony of Jesus when He said, “If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9). God is just as loving and gracious as His Son; just as willing to forgive and heal.

Could there be any better news than that? To me, that’s the everlasting good news that maintains the loyalty of the universe. That is the gospel that wins us back, and will maintain our loyalty and trust for the rest of eternity. And this is the message we have the high privilege of sharing with people all over this planet. People who may not know they are members of God’s family. People who deserve to know, and who deserve to hear this truth. So the ultimate question for this book to address is: Can we be sure God is just like this? Jesus always welcomed questions, and we can be sure that we ought to do the same.

The Larger View of the Bible and the Cross

Continuing chapter one of Conversations About God, by Graham Maxwell, edited from the oral text by Jon Paulien.

Conversations About God 1:4

Not all Christians have understood the Plan of Salvation in this larger view of a cosmic conflict over the character and government of God. Even the great theologians of the Reformation did not see things in this way. Luther, for example, was preoccupied with God’s gracious provisions to save you and me. One reason Luther does not emphasize the larger view is that he was unable to make much use of the book of Revelation. Luther correctly insisted that we should use “the Bible and the Bible only” (Sola Scriptura), but he himself was not able to use all sixty-six books. He particularly regarded Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation as inferior to the other books in the New Testament. In the book of Revelation he said he found “too little about Christ, and too much no one could understand.” And then he summarized, “there’s no way the Holy Spirit could have inspired this book!” But as a result of not being able to use the book of Revelation, he missed the larger view, as do many of his admirers today.

Some of us though, have been greatly helped by Luther in placing the Bible as the highest of all authorities. We have done what Luther recommended and we’ve studied the Bible seriously, not just sixty-two books or fewer, but all sixty-six. We have learned to read the Bible as a whole, and relate all its parts to the one central theme, the revelation of the truth about God in the great controversy. I have had the privilege of leading groups through all sixty-six Bible books more than a hundred times. Every time I do this it becomes even clearer to me that the Bible is an inspired record of how God handled the crisis in His family. I think if Luther were alive today, he too might rejoice in the larger view.

There are no shortcuts to trust, or the Bible would be a much briefer book. Claims prove nothing. Even when a person has been falsely accused of being untrustworthy, it is only by the demonstration of trustworthiness over a long period of time, and under a great variety of circumstances, especially difficult ones, that trust can be re-established and confirmed.

The Bible records just such a demonstration, beginning with the entrance of sin into the universe and climaxing with the death of Christ on the cross. My understanding is that Christ died to re-establish peace in God’s family. The apostle Paul explained the purpose of the cross, and why Jesus had to die, in a number of passages. Look at Colossians 1:19-20, for example:
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (RSV)

The word “reconcile” here means to atone, to bring to unity. Note also where peace is made. It is at the cross. Let’s look at the same text in another version:

For it was by God’s own decision that the Son has in himself the full nature of God. Through the Son, then, God decided to bring the whole universe back to himself. God made peace through his Son’s death on the cross, and so brought back to himself all things, both on earth and in heaven. (TEV)

Notice two other passages in Ephesians that make the same point. Ephesians 1:9, 10 reads:

For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (RSV)

Here we have a glimpse of the ending of the war, when God’s purpose is fulfilled and the whole universe will be united. Uniting all things is the opposite of war; when you have unity you also have peace. Now the other text, Ephesians 3:9, 10:

. . . and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. (RSV)

According to Ephesians, the way God is demonstrating the truth about Himself and winning the war is through His church, through His people. This is explained in a dramatic way in another of Paul’s letters, in 1 Corinthians 4:9: “. . . we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to men.” (RSV) The Greek word for spectacle is theatron, from which we get “theater.” Some saints might be reluctant to attend the theater, but Paul tells us we live in a theater all the time. God’s stage. And on this stage He is demonstrating the truth about Himself by the way He is dealing with His church.

God includes the whole family in the results of this demonstration. Look at John 12:32:
“When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to me.” (TEV) The TEV here expresses the real meaning of the original. The word for “all men” is not limited to human beings. It is the word for the entire universe; everyone and everything. Not just people on this planet, but even the loyal angels, I believe, were drawn closer to God by this costly demonstration. These verses say to me that Christ died for sinless angels too. And they certainly needed no forgiveness or adjustment of their legal standing. Yet the Bible says they needed the message of the cross as well.

Our Role in The Cosmic Conflict

Continuing chapter one of Conversations About God, by Graham Maxwell, edited from the oral text by Jon Paulien.

Conversations About God 1:3

Whether we want to be or not, all of us are now caught up in the consequences of this cosmic conflict regarding the character and government of God. Everyone in the universe is unavoidably involved. And the future of God’s family, to which we all belong, depends upon the outcome of this war. Compared with God’s solution of this problem, our own personal salvation, while important, is relatively inconsequential. For if God does not win this war, who would want to be saved?

For God to win this war, however, does not leave out our salvation. The way God has worked to win you and me is the same as the way in which He won the war among the angels. In other words, the methods that God has used to win us back to repentance and faith (trust) are the same methods that have led the unfallen universe to tell Him He’s absolutely trustworthy. Even if He should fail to win you and me, they will trust and worship Him for the rest of eternity because of the demonstration of His goodness and trustworthiness.

So as much as God wants to save all of us, He could fail to do this and still not lose the war. For in heavenly places the war was already won two thousand years ago. All through the book of Revelation, angels are celebrating God’s victory in the war. They never cease telling Him that He’s proved Himself to be righteous and holy and just and good and infinitely worthy of their trust (Rev 5:9-12; 15:3-4). And that victory is the foundation of our salvation.

The early Christians sorely needed Revelation’s encouraging picture of the angels celebrating, because there were several serious crises among them at that time. For one thing, the Second Coming seemed to be indefinitely delayed. They thought He would come around 50 A.D. and Paul had to tell them, “No, not yet” (2 Thess 2:1-3). There were still more things to happen (2 Thess 2:4-12). But by the 90’s Jesus had still not returned. And besides this, there were heresies in the church. Some, for example, were teaching that Christ had not really come in human form. He had not really suffered and died. He had faked it all. For that reason, they were sometimes called the Docetists (from the Greek word for “seeming to be”). And then there was great opposition, and serious persecution. Not only that, the apostles were all dead, except one. And he was the elderly John, now a prisoner on the Isle of Patmos. What good news was there to encourage the early Christians?

You can count on God, when things are that bleak, to send a message of encouragement and explanation to His people. He surely wouldn’t send a book of mysteries and dates and schedules of events that they could not possibly understand. Rather, the sixty-sixth Bible book that God did send is titled “Revelation,” or “Clarity.” The book of Revelation is an invitation to discouraged early Christians to look a little higher, to take the larger view of things. It helped them see how they’d all been caught up in a vast conflict that affects the whole universe! And that it’s a conflict over God’s own character and government.

Not only that, as you read through the book of Revelation you see that God has already won this war, and the angels in heaven all agree with Him. This is the good news. Revelation also invites us to join in the celebration; and then to go out to the world and invite all who are willing to listen, to join in God’s victory in the war. When Christians discover this larger view of things, they don’t need to be on the defensive all the time; they have good news to tell. There is no way God and His side can lose. The invitation of the Bible’s sixty-sixth book is to join the winning side.

The book of Revelation also says that you can count on God to wait until this truth about Him, this good news about His character and government, has been spread all over the world. God is the kind of person who will wait until His children have had an opportunity to understand the issues in the war. He wants them to be ready for the awesome events the Bible describes as taking place before Jesus’ return. The highest privilege of God’s friends on this planet today is to understand and to present the plan of salvation in the larger setting of the great controversy.

Summing up, the first step in the journey of faith is to recognize that we are sinners and that we need to be saved. It is understandable, therefore, that at first we might be preoccupied with what God has done in order that we might be saved. But as we grow in the journey of faith, and our knowledge of the Bible deepens, and we learn to take the Bible as a whole. It then becomes apparent that our own personal salvation (important as that is) is only a small part of a far larger picture that involves the peace and security of the whole vast universe. It involves the confirmation of the truth about our God Himself.