My Tortured Conscience  

          The story of Martin weber's liberation from Sadventism         

            Martin Luther famously wrestled with legalism in the monastery, finally conquering through the gospel—as testified by his 95 theses. Many Adventists have their own testimonies of tortured consciences finally liberated by God’s grace. Here is my story that led me to launch this website:

            I confess that for my first two decades of life, misinformation about the gospel brought me frustration and confusion. From earliest childhood onward, I suffered tremendous guilt and despair despite the good intentions of my spiritual leaders.

            Church school teachers warned that God could take to heaven only perfectly victorious children. The rest of us He loved very much, but that would not help us in the judgment. Then they added cheerfully: "But if you pray every day, Jesus promises to take away your naughty hearts and give you clean hearts. You can't do this for yourself, but He'll do it for you. Then you'll only want to do what's right."

            Well, again and again I surrendered my young life so Jesus could give me that clean heart, but nothing seemed to happen. Temptation still allured me. Much of what I felt like doing either was so much fun it made people frown, or it was fattening. Not much consolation for the boy known as "Chubby Marty."

            One pastor's wife wrote a letter to my mother explaining that I would be lost if I didn't lose weight. Her threatening quotations from inspiration failed to bring me courage in the Lord. I've since learned that many fat people are going to heaven, and many skinny people are going to hell.

            I used to wish that God would be as nice and understanding as my mother. Not a chance. My conscience wagged it's bony finger in my chubby face and pronounced damnation.

            Teenage years brought an adolescent growth spurt that wiped out my lingering baby fat but introduced other temptations. I got the impression from what pastors and teachers told me that any young man truly born again would surely lose his appetite for sinful indulgences. As if he would enjoy spending Sunday afternoons at the local nursing home watching the old ladies knit and reading them the book of Deuteronomy!

            Academy teachers worked faithfully yet futilely to weed out adolescent follies. "Young people, you must strive for perfection in Christ, or you will never be ready for Jesus to come," they warned. "Why be lost when salvation is free! You can't buy it, you can't work for it. The grace of God that perfects your life is free!"

            Free indeed! Let me tell you, I came to the place where I wished salvation were not free. I wished I could sell my soul to God just to find relief from my tormenting conscience. But no, salvation was free. Just like moon dust, free for the taking but far beyond my grasp.

            I know some people who have tried to keep cats around the house but discover themselves allergic to their furry friends. In that same way I found myself allergic to religion. Perhaps others could maintain a victorious relationship with God, but I couldn't. After years of frustration and failure I finally gave up. "What's the use!" I lamented. "I'm going to hell, anyway. Might as well forget any hope of ever being good enough to become a Christian."

            Only God knows how many Adventists love the world only because they've tried to love God and it didn't work. Without encouraging them with the good news of what we have in Christ, there's no use telling them the bad news that worldlings and compromisers are going to hell. All it does is make them feel even more hopeless.

"Now or never"

            At the beginning my sophomore year at college, I was more lonely and frustrated than ever. Suddenly, unexpectedly, spiritual yearnings returned deep inside. I didn't see much hope for success in a relationship with God; my chances seemed at best about one in 10 of making it to heaven. But I had to give religion another try. Nothing else was working.

            "Please, Lord," I pleaded. "Teach me how to be a Christian!"

            Heaven seemed silent. The Christians I counselled with just recycled the same platitudes that had confused me in the first place.

            Just when I neared the end of all hope, the time arrived for the autumn week of prayer at Columbia Union College. My friends considered the speaker boring; he didn't dazzle us with star‑spangled stories. But in his plain‑Jane presentations I heard the simple message of grace as never before. Monday morning he quoted a promise from deep within the Old Testament: "And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart" (Jer. 29:13). A ray of hope at last! If I would search for God with all my heart I finally would find Him. He promised!

            Carefully I listened as the speaker explained heaven's facts of life. I had known, of course, that Jesus died for my sins, a gift received by some victorious quality called faith. Now for the first time I learned what faith really meant. It isn't some exclusive attribute of spiritual giants. Faith is simply the willingness to exchange what the world offers for what God offers us in Christ.

            First we exchange our guilt for His forgiveness. We also exchange our weakness for His strength. Then we exchange our own way of doing things for God's will. This is faith, pure and simple, faith that brings salvation. Applied in daily living, that same exchange (of what the world offers us for what God offers us in Christ) nurtures Christian growth.

            "Seems clear enough," I thought, "but how do I learn to exercise this faith? How do I make this practical?"

            I set up an appointment with the speaker to find out. He shared a verse that unlocked the secret of faith: "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith" (Heb. 12:2).

            "But I can't see Jesus!" I protested.

            "He's in His Word, the Bible," the speaker assured me. "There we see Him forgiving all kinds of sinners—thieves, prostitutes, headstrong disciples and proud Pharisees. The same mercy and power He had for sinners back then He still has for us today. His love softens our hearts and makes us want to live for Him."

            "Sounds sensible," I said hopefully, then headed off to class.

            Faith is just that simple: exchanging what the world offers from Adam for what God offers in Christ. Christianity had always seemed so complicated, eternally obsessed with attaining instant sinlessness. Now I learned to trust Christ's accomplishments instead of my own spiritual achievements.

            That night as I turned out the light I kept wondering: "Is all this really true? Can God really look upon me and say, 'You are My beloved son, in Whom I am well pleased'?"

            "No!" my conscience snarled. "God can't smile at you. He's got His eyebrows raised until you overcome every sin. You don't deserve His approval yet."

            Then the thought occurred: Did Jesus deserve what He got on the cross? Certainly not. Well then, if He didn't deserve what He got (my guilt), then I need not deserve what I get (God's approval). Christ got what I deserve so that I can get what He deserves. He wore my crown of thorns so that I can wear His eternal crown of glory.

            There in the friendly darkness of my room I prayed: "Lord, I love what You offer me in Christ. It's so much better than the rubbish I've heard before. I want to worship You forever!"

            Like a starving man who stumbled into a banquet hall, I rose early each morning to study all I could about faith. From its many uses throughout Scripture, certain facts began to emerge: Faith is not the absence of doubt but the decision to cling to God's promises despite doubt and confusion. Faith is not the absence of fear but a dogged determination to trust God despite our fears. And faith isn't the absence of guilty feelings but the hanging of our helpless souls on the cross of Christ despite being bombarded by guilt.

            Some of this I learned right away, and some of it took years to fully understand. The best news to me was that I could consider myself a Christian even before overcoming my sins.

Backsliding into legalism

            A year went by after accepting Jesus. I spent a summer in student missionary work and returned for my junior year at Columbia Union College. Eager to devote my life to God's service, I changed my study major to theology.

            Life was going wonderfully. A fulfilling devotional hour every morning met my spiritual needs. Lots of friends and Christian fellowship met my social needs. A New Jersey state scholarship and a good job met my financial needs. The future seemed promising; Pennsylvania Conference leaders planned to hire me as a pastor upon graduation. For the first time in my life, I was not just surviving but thriving.

            Suddenly, everything went wrong. I plunged into a deep, dark, spiritual abyss from which I would not escape for three years. This Gethsemane ordeal began the evening of October 22, 1971. I was attending a student retreat in the mountains of western Maryland, hoping to enhance my joy in the Lord and my service for Christ. The speaker that weekend was an elderly minister who headed an independent, "self‑supporting" institution. His organization had a well‑earned reputation for cooperating with the church and its various programs, never accepting tithe funds from supporters. Despite the basic integrity of the organization, there were hidden cracks in its spiritual foundation, none of which were apparent that night at the retreat. The only thing that impressed me was the sincerity of the speaker as he solemnly spoke about the delay of Christ's second coming.

            "Think of all the years gone by since we expected Jesus to return," he implored as his earnest eyes swept the attentive young faces of his audience. "Why has our Lord not yet come?"

            "The answer," he told us, "is that Christ is waiting for every one of His people to live perfectly without sinning. We must overcome every sin before He can take us to heaven."

            No, he wasn't referring to sins of rebellion committed by the unconverted. His point was that the failure of genuine Christians to become perfectly sinless was preventing Christ from coming. He compared Jesus in heaven to a mother mopping the kitchen floor. She can't put down the mop until all her children quit tracking in mud. Likewise Jesus can't stop what He is doing in heaven and return to earth until every Christian quits muddying up heaven's book of record by having sins to confess.

            "Is this really true?" I wondered. I could feel the joy of my life, the assurance of salvation, evaporating in the cool mountain air. I winced as the speaker disclosed more bad news. He informed us that every time we fail in our attempts to please God we not only delay Christ's coming but we bring crucifying pain to His loving heart. Jesus is like a railroad engineer pinned beneath the wreck of this world's sin, and our mistakes are like scalding water from a ruptured locomotive boiler dripping down upon Him. Not till every believer achieves total Christlikeness of character will the load be lifted and Christ's terrible agony cease.

            "How awful!" I thought as my heart sank further. "But if it's true I've got to accept it. How can I overcome all my sins so Jesus can stop hurting and I will be safe to save for heaven?"

            "The solution to the sin problem," declared the speaker, "is to continually contemplate the terrible cost of our sins which are breaking Christ's heart. Only then can we benefit from Christ's life‑changing sacrifice. Only then will we love Jesus enough to stop sinning forever. Finally then He can return for His perfected people."

            All this commended itself to my sensitive conscience. Not till years later did I learn that it's not the continual burden of our guilt but the peace of God, the assurance of His acceptance, that keeps our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. "The joy of the Lord is your strength" (Neh. 8:10) in Christian living.

            Yes, it's true that stubborn resistance to repentance is melted only by the love that paid the cost of Calvary. But after we do surrender to Jesus, it's time to dispense with guilt and bask in the sunshine of His acceptance. Christians who continually brood over their sin's awful cost tend to become psychologically unhealthy and spiritually paralyzed.

            Well, that night at the student retreat, my horrified mind couldn't find rest. I tossed and turned at the agony of my Lord in the sanctuary suffering every time an opportunity passed unfulfilled to witness for Him. I could hardly imagine that I was torturing Jesus with my failures and delaying His coming as well.

            By the time morning dawned I vowed that by faith in Christ I would overcome all sin and put a stop to His suffering. I would develop the closest possible relationship with Jesus so He could perfectly live His life in me. Then I would be ready for Him to take me home to heaven.

            Upon my return to the college campus after the retreat, my friends quickly noticed the change in me. "What's wrong, Marty?" they asked. "You seem depressed." I was, though daring not to admit it. I solemnly asked them to pray that God would help me overcome all sin and lead others to experience that vital transformation.

            By Friday afternoon I had xeroxed hundreds of copies of a yellow sheet entitled "How to Stop Sinning." It was crammed full of what I learned at the retreat. I circulated that miserable paper all over campus—in the cafeteria, the dormitories, the gym, the chapel, everywhere. I confess I felt like a hypocrite telling everybody else how to stop sinning when I had not achieved that lofty goal.

            Not because I wasn't trying, though. I rose earlier than ever to deepen my relationship with Christ and have His overcoming strength. But a big problem confronted me. The closer I came to Jesus, the more aware I was of my shortcomings—and thus the more guilty and despairing I felt.

            "This is ridiculous," I thought. "Getting close to Jesus only makes me feel more sinful by comparison to Him. What will it take to become exactly like Him so I can finally have peace?"

            I stopped at nothing in my quest for a Christlike character. Determined to quell all competitive pride, I quit playing sports (no loss to the college, I wasn't an athlete anyway). To shut down any potential temptation, I shunned dating. To keep my mind absolutely clear, I stopped eating desserts. To avoid the danger of disease, I gave up dairy products. In all these things I was following the rigorous "blueprint" advocated by that speaker from the self‑supporting institution.

            Do you see what was happening? A year before when becoming a Christian I had relinquished sin's dead leaves, but now I was breaking off life's innocent branches. All I had left was a dying stump.

            What next? Without a thing left to surrender that God didn't have already, all I could think of was to abandon the Christian college that permitted its students the freedom to participate in competitive sports and indulge in dating.

            So good‑bye to all my friends. So long to my hard‑earned scholarships. Farewell to my college diploma and my cherished dream of becoming a pastor.

            But where should I go? My life now revolved around the principles promoted by that self‑supporting institution. I decided to make a pilgrimage there and get acquainted with the people. Perhaps they would let me join them in pursuing a perfect character.

            It was a long journey. Every mile that passed increased my eagerness to see the New Jerusalem of my convictions. At last I drove up the wooded driveway.

            Paradise restored! That's what it seemed like. Simple, practical buildings way out in the country, far removed from the sinful city. Clear‑eyed, smiling people with firm handshakes welcoming me to lunch. Plain, hearty food skillfully prepared. Wholesome, earnest conversation. A vigorous afternoon hike on the wooded mountain trail.

            "This is the place for me," I concluded. "No foolishness. No worldliness. No compromises. These people really mean business about the straight testimony of inspired standards."

            To an earnest young Christian weary of the world's allurements, this self‑supporting institution seemed the gateway to heaven, the paragon of primitive, practical godliness. Certainly, many people there were among the most sincere I have ever known. What I didn't realize right away was that some were also the most guilt‑oppressed, legalistic people you could ever meet. Of course, none of that was apparent to me at the time.       

Elusive sinlessness

            I plunged into the program and expected to make rapid progress toward the sinlessness everyone said would qualify me for heaven. Nothing of the world could distract me. No television, no radio, no newspapers, no magazines, and no suppers.

            Survival was a struggle. Mornings I hand-cranked the old John Deere tractor and plowed the fields. Or I helped fix the rust‑encrusted vehicles we drove, sawed firewood or built little houses for incoming families. All afternoon I sold Christian books and magazines up and down country roads and hollows. Then every evening and all weekend long I conducted Bible studies in surrounding towns.

            After one year of uncompromising sacrifice in that spiritual boot camp, everyone regarded me as the strictest person there. If fact, they called me a fanatic. All I was doing, though, was taking exactly what they believed to its logical conclusion. I ruled my appetite with an iron will, yet my frequent fasting did nothing to satisfy my spiritual hunger. Even worse, I had to admit to myself that I still had sinfulness in my life. No major failures; all bad habits I knew of had been overcome, yet I had a painful sense of generally falling short of God's ideal. Free-floating guilt, psychologists call it.

            One Saturday night I finally came to terms with my misery. I was sitting in my attic room pondering Christ's invitation: "Come unto Me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11:28). I began thinking: "Rest . . . how sweet that sounds. If only I could enjoy real rest in Jesus."

            Suddenly a volcano inside erupted.

            "God, what does it take! I've already given up everything You could possibly want. I've given up all fun, even desserts. I've forfeited my scholarships and my hope of being a pastor. I've given up my family and all my friends. I'm all alone here. My class at college is graduating this spring and I'm stuck here on this old farm where nobody loves me, nobody cares."

            Hot tears cascaded on my Bible.

            "They call me a fanatic, Lord. But all I do is only what You want me to. I just study, work and pray—and still it's not enough! I still feel guilty all day long!"

            Convulsed with sobs, I cried: "God, what do You want? What will it take to have that perfect Christlike character? Why can't you help me stop hurting Jesus and be ready to go to heaven!"

            How long I spent sobbing on my knees, I don't know. When I finally got up I was more determined than ever to overcome sin. Even if it killed me. I knew I couldn't overcome in my own strength, of course, but in the power of the living Christ within me.

            Emotionally exhausted, I crawled into my army cot and fell into a merciful sleep. The next day I fasted and prayed. I was already a frequent faster, but now I determined to deprive myself more often. Not to gain merit, I imagined, but to clear my mind for a deeper relationship with Jesus. When others were feasting on physical food I chose to feast by faith on the Bread of Life.

            Thanksgiving day of 1973 stands out in memory. The cooks had prepared an abundant holiday dinner, which I considered a test of my spiritual commitment. While the others dined happily, I climbed the mountain behind the institution and fasted. I prayed for everyone by name that they would not overeat and defile their body temple.

            I did my best to convince myself that I was having a better time fellowshipping with the Lord than if I had been indulging my appetite. The truth was that my growling stomach made me resent those who could eat their meal without guilt. Ironically, my fasting left me worse off spiritually than if I had simply enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner like everyone else.

            Obviously, fasting was not my pathway to perfection. What else could I do to make my Christian experience more productive in achieving sinlessness?

No rest day or night

            I began studying everything Ellen White wrote about prayer. I came across some fascinating statements:

            "The Majesty of heaven, while engaged in His earthly ministry, prayed much to His Father. He was frequently bowed all night in prayer. . . . All night, while His followers were sleeping, was their divine teacher praying. The dew and frost of night fell upon His head bowed in prayer. His example is left for His followers."[1]

            So Christ's example in all-night prayer is for us to follow, Ellen White says. I also read this from volume four of the Testimonies:

"When the cities were hushed in midnight slumber, when every man had gone to his own house, Christ, our example, would repair to the Mount of Olives, and there, amid the overshadowing trees, would spend the entire night in prayer."[2]

            Once again we see that Christ prayed all night as our example. Then in volume four, I read this:

            "He came to give a correct example of a gospel minister. . . . After teaching throughout the entire day, He frequently devoted the night to prayer."[3]

            "What is God trying to tell me?" I wondered. "Am I supposed to be praying all night? Is this the secret of attaining perfection?"

            "But you can't pray all night!" common sense protested. "You need sleep."

            Then I came across this statement, also from the Testimonies: "Fervent and effectual prayer is always in place, and will never weary. Such prayer interests and refreshes all who have a love for devotion."[4]

            "So that's it!" I concluded. "If my prayer is fervent enough, it will never weary me but refresh me instead. I've finally found the secret to perfection! Fervent, effectual prayer refreshing me all night long instead of sleep."

            Suddenly everything seemed to fit together in my quest for sinlessness. God has two ways to refresh us: sleep for the world and immature Christians, and resting in Christ through prayer for those serious about attaining perfection. What a beautiful plan! How wasteful for Christians to spend one third of their lives in bed! No wonder nobody's perfect yet. We pray enough to have some victory but not total victory. Someday God's going to have a group of people perfectly victorious over all sin, empowered by the Spirit through praying all night—every night! And rather than being weary, they will be more refreshed than anyone else.

            Once again human nature warned: "But it's impossible to live without sleep!" Then the text came to mind: "All things are possible to him that believeth."

            Well, that did it. My decision was made. I determined that through Christ's power I would live the rest of my life without voluntary sleep. None whatsoever. All things were possible through faith.

            That night after returning from my Bible studies, it was time to launch my new prayer life. I wrapped a blanket around my shoulders and ventured outside, flashlight in hand. The chill November air pierced my shivering frame as I toiled up the mountain. Arriving at my place of prayer, I knelt on the freezing ground and poured out my heart to God amid the sound of the wind moaning through the trees. Not far away a bobcat screamed—or was it a mountain lion?

            I prayed on. The frost forming on the ground glistened in the moonlight as I agonized before Almighty Yahweh.

            Why was I praying outdoors? Because Ellen White said that Jesus prayed outdoors despite the dew and the frost, and I was just following His example. By faith, of course. Everything I did was by "faith."

            About midnight my frostbitten mind couldn't think of anything else to pray about. Rising stiffly from my knees, I stretched my numb frame then stumbled down the hill and back inside the house to study the books of Ellen White and my Bible. After an hour or so of reading, I warmed up enough to start nodding off to sleep. Catching myself just in time, I hurried down to the cellar to take a cold shower. Nothing in the world would rob me of this vital season of spiritual refreshing. Finally, about three that morning I did doze off, to be awakened a couple of hours later by my buzzing alarm clock.

            Night after night I maintained my lonely vigil. It was like a self‑inflicted Siberian exile. Some freezing nights my resolve sagged and I returned to the house early, telling the Lord I would study the rest of the night—only to slip off to sleep about midnight. I can hardly describe the guilt I felt upon awakening after "wasting" five hours of sleep. I condemned myself for betraying my Lord, missing out on essential fellowship with Him.

            Often I did manage to pray and study the whole night through. Yawning triumphantly, I would set my books aside, rub my weary eyes and join the rest of the institution for morning worship. Somehow I mustered strength to face a full day of hard labor.

            I kept a careful record of my sleepless hours to measure my spiritual growth. To this day I have my notebook with those records.

            People at the institution tried to help me. They showed me counsels written to students about getting proper sleep.

            "That's advice for young people who haven't attained full maturity as Christians," I replied.

            Then they pointed to Ellen White's eight natural remedies, one of which is rest. "You've just strengthened my case," I said. "Notice that the servant of the Lord did not use the term 'sleep.' She said 'rest.' I'm being refreshed all night just as you are, except that you're sleeping and I'm resting in Christ."

            "You're unbalanced," they told me. "That's unheard of, praying all night."

            I responded that the final generation must attain a spiritual experience that nobody else ever has, so we had better get used to praying as nobody else ever has.

            There was a perverse logic in my spiritual madness. For every argument they had, I had an answer. They couldn't think of anything further to say, so I seized the offensive. "Look, I didn't come up with this idea myself. It's from the Lord! Read these quotations," I urged. "Again and again the servant of the Lord says in the Testimonies that Christ prayed all night and His example in doing so is for us to follow.[5] Don't you believe them?"

            They had no answer, so I pressed on.

            "You can water down the Testimonies if you want to, but I'm not going to compromise inspired counsel to suit human weakness. All things are possible through faith!"

            "You're losing your mind," they warned.

            "No, I'm not losing my mind. I'm finding my Lord in a deeper way."

            Then I quickly found a quotation from the Desire of Ages about Christ's brothers charging Him with losing His sanity because He prayed so long and worked so hard. "Jesus did exactly what I'm doing," I chided them. "And like Christ's brothers, you're trying to stop me!"

            What else could they say?

            I charged the leaders at that institution with compromising their own convictions. They often criticized church members who didn't take inspired counsel literally—yet they themselves were ignoring these clear statements about Christ's example for us in sleepless prayer.

            In all my fanaticism I was simply taking the principles they believed to their logical conclusion. They often expressed guilt about not praying enough. Well, I was praying enough. They confessed that they weren't studying the inspired counsels enough. I was studying enough. All I was doing was what they seemed to feel guilty about not doing.

            Nevertheless, they called me a legalist.

            "No!" I protested. "I'm only doing this to deepen my relationship with Jesus."

            Yet of course what I was doing was legalism: Christ‑centered legalism. I pictured myself staying awake all night with Jesus. Everyone else was asleep, like the faithless disciples slumbering in the garden of prayer.

            You guessed it; that old demon of spiritual pride had overtaken me again. Soon I became a first-class Pharisee. Although I secretly hated myself for being self righteous, I couldn't stop feeling smug. There was no denying the fact that I lived on a stricter and sterner spiritual level than anyone around me.

Legalism by "faith"

            Why couldn't everyone see that sleeplessness is the secret of perfection? It seemed so simple. Carnal Christians were sleeping away precious hours of spiritual refreshing, while I continually drank from the well of spiritual refreshment, quite literally praying without ceasing. At the end of time I imagined there would be 144,000 perfect saints hiding in the mountains praying all the time. And I would be one of them. Maybe even the first one of them.

            Number one for Jesus. Why not?

            Legalism, you say. Yes indeed, legalism at its worst. But remember it was Christ‑centered legalism. Legalism by "faith."

            Recently I've been fascinated by the history of the medieval church. I was startled to see that everything I used to do, the Catholic priests in their monasteries also did during the dark ages.

             I forsook family and friends, and so did they. I felt forced into celibacy, and so did they. I lived in poverty like they did. I was obedient to my superiors as they were. I fasted, and they did too. I maintained the same sleepless vigils they did. And it was all for the same purpose as theirs was: to attain a perfect union with Christ by faith.

            Consider the Catholic devotional classic, The Imitation of Christ. Written by a German monk in 1427, a full century before Luther's Reformation, this medieval manual on legalism by faith advocates the same lifestyle I used to follow. Notice this:

            "St. Lawrence, through the love of God overcame mightily the love of the world and of himself.

            He despised all that was pleasant and delectable in the world. . . . Instead of man's comfort he chose to follow the will of God. Do in like manner, and learn to forsake some necessary and some well‑beloved friend for the love of God."[6]

            You see, it was to get close to God that monks and nuns abandoned their friends and families. They were pursuing the same purifying relationship with Christ that I was:

            "My son, says our Saviour Christ, I must be the end of all your works, if you desire to be happy and blessed. If you refer all goodness to Me, from whom all goodness comes, then all your inward affections will be purified and made clean."[7]

            Did you know that the medieval church believed this way about Jesus? Here's an interesting quotation supposedly from Christ:

            "Offer yourself to Me and give yourself all for God, and your oblation [offering] will be acceptable. . . . But if you have trust in yourself and do not freely offer yourself to My will, your oblation is not pleasing and there will not be between us a perfect union."[8]

            A perfect union with Jesus: this was the cherished goal of the medieval monks. Their obsession with perfection through a relationship with Jesus is a trademark of ancient and modern Catholic writings. Martin Luther thundered against this Christ‑centered legalism by faith.

            Luther had to learn the hard way, as I did. After spending much time in the monastery in search of perfection, he finally accepted the perfect record of Jesus Christ as His own accomplishment.

            Back when he entered the monastery, he determined to become holy. He pursued purity by depriving himself of life's comforts, even its necessities. Some nights, kneeling on the old stone floor, he would console his conscience, "I have done nothing wrong today." Then doubts would arise: "Am I really pure enough to qualify as a child of God?"

            Nothing he could do brought him peace. He could never be certain of satisfying God. But finally he discovered that the peace he was trying so hard to obtain was waiting for him at Calvary's cross. Jesus took the punishment that we sinners deserve, so we could be freely forgiven.

             Luther could hardly believe this good news. Despite his guilt he could be counted as perfect, since Jesus, who really was holy, suffered his penalty. Of course, the Catholic Church had always taught that only through the power of Christ can sinners be saved. Luther came up with a challenging new discovery: Believers, though imperfect, can at the same time be counted righteous. God considers sinners to be saints as soon as they trust in Jesus—even before their lives reveal good works (which of course will be forthcoming in the life set free at Calvary).

            Notice Romans 4:5: "To him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness."

            So the ungodly who surrender to Jesus are justified, forgiven. Forgiveness comes not because we are holy. Not by works, Luther now realized, but because sinners trust in Jesus.

            All his life Luther had thought it unfair to reward imperfect people with eternal life. He believed in purgatory, a place where imperfections could be purged after death to make Christians fit for heaven. But now he learned that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). Even the saints fall short of God's perfect ideal. Our only hope is the blood of Jesus Christ.

            Luther came to realize that because Christ is our Saviour, the representative of redeemed humanity, every Christian is already worthy for heaven in Him. On the cross Jesus "qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints" (Col. 1:12). No need for purgatory! Joy filled Luther's heart. Finally his troubled conscience found peace through the gospel and he escaped monastic bondage.

Obedient unto death

            Like Martin Luther, my burning yearning for perfection might have ended my life. You see, after having just a couple hours of sleep, or no sleep at all, I almost died while driving to Bible studies. Dozens of times I fell asleep at the wheel, only to wake up just in time to avoid a head‑on collision with a giant coal truck. Often I jolted awake just as my wheels hit the gravel off the shoulder of the road, about to plunge over the embankment into the river. Were it not for the mercy of God, surely I would have died in my blind fanaticism regarding the Testimonies.

            Yes, my foolish legalism almost killed me. But really, I wouldn't have cared. What did I have to live for?

            No, suicide was never a consideration. I wouldn't dare take my life into my own hands after committing it to God. It would have been fine with me, though, if He ended my life. I think I secretly hoped that would happen.

            What a pity! I had gone from being a thriving theology student to a sleep-starved skeleton. The devil had ruined my life, not through the allurements of the world but through my sincere desire to obey God. I'll explain more of what was happening in the final chapter of this book: "Demons of Righteousness."

            Can you see why, for the sincere Christian, legalism is a far more dangerous deception than worldliness? Every honest heart knows it's wrong to play around with sin; there's not much deception there for true believers. Legalism, however, appeals not to the lusts of sin but to the desire to obey God. It robs our spiritual life by hijacking our purest motives.

A new song

            I've shared this part of my testimony so others might avoid similar bondage. If you want the full story of my safari into the dark jungle of legalism and how God's mercy airlifted me to safety, you'll find it in the book My Tortured Conscience.


            I waited patiently for the Lord;

                        He turned to me and heard my cry.

            He lifted me out of the slimy pit,

                        out of the mud and the mire;

            He set my feet on a rock

                        and gave me a firm place to stand.

            He put a new song in my mouth,

                        a hymn of praise to our God.

                                                            (Psalm 40:1‑3, NIV)



[1].Ellen G. White, Testimonies to the Church, vol. 2, p. 508.

[2].Ellen G. White, Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 528.

[3].Ibid., p. 373.

[4].Ellen G. White, Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 70.

[5].In addition to the quotations already noted, please see Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 86; Signs of the Times, July 24, 1893; Signs of the Times, January 26, 1882; etc.

[6].Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (New York: Doubleday, 1955), p. 87.

[7].Ibid., p. 118.

[8].Ibid., p. 218.