The Gospel of Jesus has never been popular. The gospels reveal that Jesus “came to His own, and His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11).
Thus Jesus tells us to “enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13, 14).
Although there has always been a mass of professors of religion, there have been but few who have been willing to be truly converted thereby, willing to be broken on the Rock and to crucify self.
Religion has never lacked popularity. Throughout history, most people had “religion” and have even been proud of it. But “The religion that is fashionable, that is popular in the world, is not the religion of the meek and lowly Jesus.” The Review and Herald, June 14, 1892. “The religion of Christ permits no compromise, no yielding to the influences of the world.” Ibid. One of Satan’s goals in our church is to make religion fashionable; to lower the standards of truth so that our church may be filled with those who are professors of religion, but not truly converted.
“It has been the continual endeavor of the enemy to introduce into the church persons who assent to much that is truth, but who are not converted. Professed Christians who are false to their trust are channels through whom Satan works. He can use unconverted church members to advance his own ideas and retard the work of God. Their influence is always on the side of wrong.” Notebook Leaflets from the Elmshaven Library, vol. 1, 21.
The book of Revelation reveals that Satan has succeeded in diluting this church with professors of religion who are not converted. In prophecy, this church is pictured: “So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot … and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:16, 17). But because of their profession, Laodiceans viewed themselves as being rich and having need of nothing.
No more fearful delusion can take a people captive, and no more accurate description could depict our church today. We are more intent on maintaining a good name than on living a godly life. We want to feel good about ourselves while maintaining our worldly lifestyle.
We want to be popular as are the churches of the world. Typical is our turning to non-Adventist church-growth experts to teach us how we can become popular and grow like the other churches. In the process, the offense of the cross has ceased. No longer is there persecution from without, only that which comes from within when someone raises his voice calling for reform.
And yet for all the endeavors at popularity, we are not growing, at least not in the Western countries. Why should this be? In all our efforts to learn the secrets of growth employed by the churches from which we as Seventh-day Adventists were called out, is it possible that we have missed something? We have become Laodicean relatively slowly—adopting the ways of the churches which compose mystical Babylon by default rather than by intent.
As Elijah said, “How long halt ye between two opinions? If the Lord be God, follow Him: but if Baal, then follow him” (1 Kings 18:21, KJV). Let us therefore choose to have either pleasing, popular religion, or accept the offense of the cross. And for those who want a pleasing and popular religion, not by default but by intent, here are three ways to have a pleasing religion like the world:
Preach Jesus, Without Requiring Perfect Obedience
Everyone has some besetting sin. From birth, Satan has been cultivating certain sins within each one of us.
I remember in a baptismal class, as we were reading from the Bible about jewelry, one young woman spoke up and said: “If I have to take off my wedding ring to go to heaven, I can’t go.” She had been married just six months and had a new diamond wedding ring. When I visited with her in her home two days later, she had two non-Adventist ministers there helping her to see that a little jewelry was not wrong.
She came to the baptism with all her jewelry on. She asked me to explain again the reasons why wearing it was wrong. We then went into the study and spent the next hour and a half reading again all the texts and discussing their meaning. Finally, with tears, she said, “I surrender!” From that moment on the Lord used her, and within a relatively short period of time she had brought several other people into the church.
But first, she had had to overcome her besetting sin, which probably an evil angel had worked to develop this love in her from the time she was a little girl. Presents of jewelry had probably been given to her. Prideful comments had undoubtedly been made about wearing jewelry, and how good it made one look. Jewelry had become associated with femininity, sex appeal, marriage, wealth, success, and attractiveness.
How easy it would have been to have brought her into the church without counseling her about jewelry! And although she eventually made the decision to take it off, how many do not!
I remember another young woman who had three hundred pairs of earrings, several hundred pairs of shoes, and three mink coats. She was a personal acquaintance of some well-known movie stars. She came to every meeting and accepted every truth—but one. That again, was wearing jewelry. Consequently, she found a church that would accept her with her one besetting sin.
Some are lost when standards are held high. Jesus lost the rich young ruler. How much credit he could have been to the fledgling church. He had money, influence, and leadership. Moreover, he kept all the commandments, and even accepted Jesus in broad daylight and knelt down before Him—more so than Nicodemus.
Judas’ keen perceptions immediately grasped what it would mean to their little group to have this respected leader in their company. If the young man needed any reforms, he felt these could come later.
“When Jesus presented to the rich young ruler the condition of discipleship, Judas was displeased. He thought that a mistake had been made. If such men as this ruler could be connected with the believers, they would help sustain Christ’s cause. If Judas were only received as a counselor, he thought, he could suggest many plans for the advantage of the little church.” The Desire of Ages, 719.
If Jesus had listened to Judas, the small group of disciples would not have lost the rich young ruler, nor the crowd of 5,000 when “many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more” (John 6:66). Jesus seemed to lose more disciples than He kept. Somehow, He had never been taught the secrets of church growth. His standards were too high, in Judas’ estimation.
Numerically, Jesus could have had much more success, and we can, too, if we will just be content to preach more of “Jesus” and not concern ourselves with obedience. As long as a person will accept Jesus as his Saviour and accept “most” of the standards of the church, surely the other points of godly living will come along as he sits in church Sabbath after Sabbath.
The only trouble is that as long as there is even one point not fully surrendered to the Lord, Satan has control of the life. Because conversion “requires an entire transformation, a renewing of our whole nature, we must yield ourselves wholly to Him.” Steps to Christ, 43.
“We are not God’s children unless we are such entirely.” Ibid., 44. The more areas of godly living displayed in the life, while one sin is being cherished, the more deceptive is the Christian experience. As long as one point is unsurrendered, all the preaching in the world will not avail. Judas was not converted by his association with Jesus.
“Even one wrong trait of character, one sinful desire, persistently cherished, will eventually neutralize all the power of the gospel. Every sinful indulgence strengthens the soul’s aversion to God.” Ibid., 34.
Sin is like a cancer. Either it is completely eradicated, or it completely eradicates Christ. There are only two roads we can travel: one is the road of total victory, the other is the road of total defeat. All we have to do is take one step down, and the next one becomes easier. “After every advance step in the downward road, Satan has some special temptation to lead them [professed Christians] still further on the wrong track.” Testimonies, vol. 2, 287.
But here is the problem: We do not know when we have been totally defeated. “When sin has deadened the moral perceptions, the wrongdoer does not discern the defects of his character.” Steps to Christ, 40. Sin blinds the perceptions. The Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day came under Satan’s complete control, but thought they were the guardians of the faith.
All Satan needs is for us to reject one standard. “The removal of one safeguard from the conscience, the failure to do the very thing that the Lord has marked out, one step in the path of wrong principle, often leads to an entire change of the life and action.” Mind, Character, and Personality, vol. 1, 320.
And so, if we want to be popular like the other churches, just preach “Jesus.” Call it “Christ our righteousness.” Make the people active, happy Christians but allow them to retain their one cherished sin.
Tell People to Wait for Jesus to Overcome Their Sins for Them
If the lie that perfect obedience is unnecessary doesn’t work and Satan cannot deceive us into thinking we can be saved while still cherishing sin, then he has another scheme that is just as effective. Preach Jesus, preach perfect obedience and sanctification, but tell them that Jesus will do the perfecting for them. Teach them to read the Bible and pray, and Jesus will do the rest.
This is a most deceptive, alluring philosophy. I remember talking with a leader in the church who was addicted to a certain caffeinated drink. She drank it all day long. She said she knew it was wrong, but could not quit. I asked her why she bought it and she said she was waiting for God to take the sin away from her. She even suggested that it would be wrong for her to quit unless God took it away.
It is true that we have no power to overcome sin in our own strength. But God has called us, with His power, to put sin out of our lives. Jesus gives the power, but we must do the overcoming.
“In the work of redemption there is no compulsion. No external force is employed. Under the influence of the Spirit of God, man is left free to choose whom he will serve. In the change that takes place when the soul surrenders to Christ, there is the highest sense of freedom. The expulsion of sin is the act of the soul itself. True, we have no power to free ourselves from Satan’s control; but when we desire to be set free from sin, and in our great need cry out for a power out of and above ourselves, the powers of the soul are imbued with the divine energy of the Holy Spirit, and they obey the dictates of the will in fulfilling the will of God.” The Desire of Ages, 466.
When Judas came to Jesus, he thought that if he just associated with Him, that all his sinful traits would be washed away. How wrong he was!
“He [Judas] felt in his own person the evidence of Christ’s power. … He loved the Great Teacher, and desired to be with Him. He felt a desire to be changed in character and life, and he hoped to experience this through connecting himself with Jesus. … [Christ] endowed him with power to heal the sick and to cast out devils. But Judas did not come to the point of surrendering himself fully to Christ. He did not give up his worldly ambition or his love of money.” Ibid., 717.
Judas wanted to be changed. He thought that by associating with Jesus he would be changed. He heard the words of Jesus day after day and talked with Him face to face. But because he himself did not give up his sins, his life was not changed as he hoped it would be. How many are going through a Judas experience today because of the Judas philosophy? They have accepted the idea of just spending time with Jesus and letting Him change the life apart from their own endeavors.
“Everything depends on the right action of the will. The power of choice God has given to men; it is theirs to exercise. … Desires for goodness and holiness are right as far as they go; but if you stop here, they will avail nothing. Many will be lost while hoping and desiring to be Christians. They do not come to the point of yielding the will to God. They do not now choose to be Christians.” Steps to Christ, 47, 48.
There is a work for man to do in overcoming sin that God will not do for him. God gave Samson superhuman strength, but he had to exercise every ounce of energy; he had to lift those gates off the city wall. He had no power to do it himself. But neither could he merely kneel beside those gates and wait for them to move. He had to exercise the power that God had given him. Likewise, we must exert effort in the expulsion of sin from the soul.
“There must be an earnest effort to conquer through the grace freely given of God.” The Review and Herald, January 24, 1893.
“The pleasing fable that all there is to do is to believe, has destroyed thousands and tens of thousands, because many have called that faith which is not faith, but simply a dogma. Man is an intelligent, accountable being; he is not to be carried as a passive burden by the Lord, but is to work in harmony with Christ. Man is to take up his appointed work in striving for glory, honor, and immortality. God calls upon men for the use of every talent He has lent them, the exercise of every power He has given; for man can never be saved in disobedience and indolence.” Ibid., April 1, 1890.
“Divine help is to be combined with human effort, aspiration, and energy. But we cannot reach the battlements of Heaven without climbing for ourselves. … Not even divine power can lift one soul to Heaven that is unwilling to put forth efforts in his own behalf.” The Signs of the Times, August 14, 1884.
“God will work for His children, but not without their co-operation. They must have indomitable energy.” The Review and Herald, April 8, 1890.
“God will never deliver those who will not strive to free themselves [from temptation].” The Signs of the Times, October 8, 1885.
The counsel is clear. We must overcome as Jesus did, first by uniting our weakness to His strength, our human frailties to His divine omnipotence, our nature to His, and then, thus empowered, we must overcome sin by refusing to do evil and choosing to do right.
“If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13).
But this work requires the crucifixion of self, not pleasing to the natural heart. It will not make for a large, popular church. If we want to have a pleasing doctrine that will gain more adherents, preach victory through Jesus, call it “righteousness by faith,” but teach that Jesus will do the overcoming for us.
Lead People to Worship the System
In all ages, worshiping the system has worked effectively. Get people to transfer their allegiance from the Creator to the created. In ages past, men worshiped the works of creation in the sun, moon, and stars, all in the name of religion.
However, in the New Testament era, Satan has found something new—the church. Throughout the Dark Ages, the idol and opiate of mankind was the church. People looked to the church to interpret the Scriptures, to set guidelines for their daily lives, and to fulfill the vacuum existing in the heart of every man and woman. They worked and sacrificed for the church. God was their Father, but the church became their mother, and their final allegiance was to their mother.
Do we have the same danger? In Laodicea, Jesus is pictured as standing outside the door, while the church within continues to function as though it needs nothing. The church has replaced Jesus.
We need the church, just as we need the sun, moon, and stars. But the church must never take the place of God. There must never be a creed to take the place of the Bible. There must never be a system to take the place of personal obedience. There must never be an official interpretation to take the place of personal conviction. This concern was one of Ellen White’s great burdens for the church, especially following 1888.
“The Jewish nation were not brought suddenly into their condition of thought and practice. From generation to generation they were working on false theories, carrying out principles opposed to the truth, and combining with their religion thoughts and plans that were the product of human minds. Human inventions were made supreme. …
“Let no plans or methods be adopted in any of our institutions that will bind mind or talent under the control of human judgment. …
“The high-handed power that has been developed, as though position has made men gods, makes me afraid, and ought to cause fear. It is a curse wherever and by whomsoever it is exercised. …
“We are not to bargain away our stewardship.” Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers, 359–362.
Ellen White’s great fear following 1888 was that we would do as did the Jewish nation in putting the system where God should be. She therefore warned: “Battle Creek is not to be the center of God’s work. God alone can fill this place. When our people in the different places have their special convocations, teach them, for Christ’s sake and for their own soul’s sake, not to make flesh their arm. … To place men where God should be placed does not honor or glorify God. Is the president of the General Conference to be the God of the people? … When the Lord shall work upon human hearts and human intellects, principles and practices different from this will be set before the people. ‘Cease ye from man’ (Isaiah 2:22).
“The Lord has a controversy with His people over this matter. …
“Just as soon as man is placed where God should be, he loses his purity, his vigor, his confidence in God’s power.” Ibid., 375, 376.
Ellen White counseled us to teach our people, in all their important convocations, not to put confidence in human leaders, but in God. “Our churches are weak because the members are educated to look to and depend upon human resources.” Ibid., 380.
“For many years an education has been given to the people which places God second, and man first. The people have been taught that everything must be brought before the council of a few men in Battle Creek.” Ibid., 325.
“Men have assumed authority, but the people should not depend upon poor, finite, erring men. … The Lord alone is to be exalted.” Ibid., 319.
But it is easy to turn our power of thought over to a committee and it is easy to work for something more tangible than God. Moreover, it seems so much more rewarding to work for man than for God. We can climb the system of human organization, but we cannot climb into prominence in God’s vineyard. He said, “Whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:27, 28).
Organizational worship and service is easier, more pleasing, and more rewarding to the carnal heart than doing all for the Master. It is particularly deceptive because God has ordained organization. God is not leading discordant elements into the kingdom, but a well-disciplined army. But when we give allegiance to the army instead of to the King, then organization becomes a curse instead of a blessing. Because of this problem, organization in the New Testament was kept very simple and unassuming. There was enough organization to propel the church into all the world, united by the cords of love for God and humbleness of service to mankind. All were servants of the One who had given His life for them. All were students of the Word. All were looked upon as brethren. As Jesus said, “all ye are brethren” (Matthew 23:8 KJV).
Thus, though this list does not claim to be exhaustive, there are three leading ways, all equally successful, of making the church popular and Laodicean:
- Preach Jesus, but do not require perfect obedience.
- Tell people to wait for Jesus to overcome their sins for them.
- Lead people to worship the system.
How is it with you?
All Bible texts NKJV, unless otherwise noted.
Pastor Marshall Grosboll, with his wife Lillian, founded Steps to Life. In July 1991, Pastor Marshall and his family met with tragedy as they were returning home from a camp meeting in Washington state, when the airplane he was piloting went down, killing all on board.