By Colleen Tinker
A few weeks ago someone in a former Adventist Facebook group asked how people were aware of sin before Sinai if the law is not eternal. If the law was given to point out sin, and sin is the transgression of the law, then how did people know they were sinners and needed to be made right with God? How are people saved if there is no law?
For people who have lived with the belief that the law is eternal and is the transcript of God’s character, this question is not merely academic. In fact, the belief that the law underlies all morality and righteousness describes Adventism. There are many problems with seeing the law as the determiner of good and evil, but at the core, the Adventist worldview negates God’s sovereignty and our true nature. This view also negates the biblical fact that we are saved by believing God (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4).
The truth is that the law (identified within Adventism as the Ten Commandments) is not the source of the knowledge of sin universally. Rather, God Himself reveals Himself to us. This sentence may seem overly simplistic, but for people shaped by Adventism, it is fundamental. Adventism says the law is “the transcript of God’s character”. In fact, Adventists believe that the Ten Commandments define and describe not only God’s character but also sin.
The Bible, however, reveals a different picture. Jesus, not the law, is the transcript of God’s character. A transcript is an exact copy with nothing changed, added, or omitted. Only Jesus reveals the Father. He is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15; 2 Cor. 4:4). The Bible never says the law reveals God’s character, much less being a transcript of it. No ten commands could transcribe the character of our eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God.
Not only has God revealed Himself through the Son, however, but He has revealed His eternal, divine existence in what has been made. Romans 1:18-21 explains that all of creation has revealed what can be known about God—His eternal power and divine nature—and because of this general revelation, all people “are without excuse”. Psalm 19 also states that the heavens declare the glory of God. These statements are not metaphorical. God has built into creation a revelation of Himself that is intended to reveal His existence and creative, sovereign authority. No one has an excuse for not recognizing Him, according to Scripture. In fact, Hebrews 11:6 emphasizes this reality: “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.”
Furthermore, God not only reveals Himself but also reveals the truth we must know in order to believe unto salvation. Throughout the history of Israel God successively revealed more and more of His bringing a perfect Redeemer and Savior through whom He would give believers new hearts and a new spirit (Jer. 31:31–33; Ez. 36:26). When Jesus came, God the Son took on a body and identified with our humanity. He lived the perfect life under the law which Israel could not live and then died carrying our imputed sin, was buried, and finally shattered death on the third day, becoming the end of the law for salvation to those who believe in Him (Rom. 10:4).
Now, the God who reveals Himself through what has been made makes His Son known. Those who believe that “He is and that He is the rewarder of those who seek Him” will learn of the Substitute who took their sin and died to reconcile them to God. God has ensured that His word is nearly universally available, and He also knows how to bring those with no immediate access to a Bible to a place where they can learn of Him.
God is sovereign and knows from the foundation of the world who His children are. He chose us in Jesus “before the foundation of the world” and predestined us to be adopted as His sons (Eph. 1:4–5). Those who are eternally secure have been written in the Lamb’s book of life “before the foundation of the world” (Revl 13:8; 17:8). Amazingly, God knew us and chose us before He created our world!
He reveals Himself—it’s not up to us and to missionaries to reveal Him—but He USES us to do so. Our helping people know Him is actually His work which He has given us to do (Eph. 2:10), but it is He who reveals Himself. In fact, no one can come to Jesus unless the Father draws him, Jesus said (Jn. 6:44). But if no person or Bible were available for indigenous people to believe, God Himself STILL reveals His divine nature and eternal power through creation. When people believe in HIM through this general revelation, He Himself makes sure that those people receive what they need to know to understand their redemption through our Lord Jesus.
People are never saved or lost on the basis of knowing right from wrong. People before the law were not saved by knowing what “sin” was. Rather, they were saved by believing God and His revelation of Himself. Abraham, Enoch, Noah—they all believed God and (this is important) acted in faith on the basis of what God said to them without any understanding of how things would turn out (Heb. 11:5–19). Nevertheless, they believed God, so, as Hebrews says, even Abraham offered up the son of promise, Isaac, believing that if necessary, God could raise him from the dead.
Because of Adam and Eve, we are born spiritually dead, our spirits cut off from the life of God. We are by nature children of wrath (Eph. 2:3). We are guilty of sin even though we are not aware of what each of those “sins” may actually be. In fact, people who lived before the law died because they were sinners, yet sin “was not imputed when there is no law” (Rom. 5:12–14). We are born condemned (Jn. 3:18), but God is the One who teaches us who He is and reveals Himself.
Prior to the law, God did reveal Himself to people, and as people believed what He revealed, He asked them to do His will. Believing and salvation have never been about “sin”. In fact, salvation has ALWAYS been about believing God and what He says about us and about Himself.
Eve’s sin with the snake was that instead of believing and acting on God’s single command, she let the snake cause her to doubt a tiny bit, and she DISCUSSED God’s word instead of ACTING on it. Her fundamental sin was not pride nor appetite, as Adventism taught us. Rather, her fundamental sin was unbelief. She allowed the snake’s arguments to lure her away from absolute trust in God’s word.
The law was given to organize a people through whom God would bring the Savior, and the law was given to clarify why people needed a Savior and to foreshadow what the Savior would do. The law would help identify the Savior when He came, because only God the Son would be able to fulfill the law by living a perfectly righteous life and then by becoming the Perfect Sacrifice on the cross which all the sacrifices foreshadowed.
The law was given to make it clear that no one could avoid sin, even by praying and trusting the Holy Spirit (as Adventism taught us). We are not counted righteous and saved when our behavior or characters are perfected. Instead, we have to be made ALIVE to please God. Faith and belief are impossible without God’s work in our hearts.
He is sovereign; He reveals Himself. He reveals our true nature to us, and we, on this side of the cross, have the amazing gift of God’s written word to clarify our need and God’s provision. Salvation is never about overcoming sin; it is always about believing God and trusting His promises.
Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life (1 Jn. 5:10–12).