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The Deception of Law

In his sermon recorded in Matthew 24, Jesus responds to a question from his disciples about the impending destruction of the temple. They conflate the loss of the temple with the end of the age, so it becomes a compound question. In his response, Jesus emphasizes the powerful deception of false messiahs coming in His name, and warns it will be so intense as to “deceive, if possible, the very elect.”

Seventh-day Adventists take Jesus’ warning very seriously. But we have given little thought to how and why we might be deceived. Perhaps we are overconfident, and dismiss Jesus’ warnings as relevant to others, but dismiss the notion that we ourselves are vulnerable to deception.

The biblical text itself suggests one primary avenue of deception Adventists are vulnerable to – law. Adventists pride ourselves on an integrated view of law and grace. We are saved by grace, and as a result, respect and obey God’s law. Sabbath becomes a sign of our rest not only from our efforts to save ourselves, but also a rest from our disobedience, i.e., sin. It is, after all, a sign of sanctification.

The Adventist commitment to law often carries over into the political realm. We have an abiding respect for law. And it is through law that we often view complex policy issues. One prime example is the current immigration problems. Many Adventists see this first as an issue of law – law breaking vs. law abiding. The human element is subordinated to the legal. There is little interest in the causes of the problem. It is too easy simply to resolve the problem by reliance on law. Everything would be great if people would obey the law.

Adventists associate Jesus’ warnings about end time deceptions with the passage in Revelation 13 that introduces the infamous “mark of the beast.” This system is likely to be far more enticing than many realize. If Matthew 24 does constitute Jesus’ insight into this end time scenario, the “mark of the beast” religious system will appear to be Christian. It will appear to have the blessing of God. And, it will be perfectly legal! The religious obligations of this idolatrous counterfeit will be enacted into law. We understand this from the text, because a beast, or nation, “makes” people do something through enacting laws. And in the text, the beast makes people worship. And therein lies a source of grave danger for Adventists.

It would hardly be a deception if an idolatrous system was transparently idolatrous. What makes it deceptive is that it appears to be good. Adolf Hitler did not rise to power because he appeared to be a monster. He offered national renewal, and strength, and confidence, and hope of a better time. He railed against the immorality

and decadence of the age. He scapegoated not only Jews but homosexuals, and invoked God’s blessing on the German people. As a result, he encountered little resistance from the German Church.

A spiritually powerless church looks to the state for moral and spiritual renewal, and looks to the law to conform to God’s will. But the entire enterprise of seeking to conform human morality and religion to God’s will by force of law is of the devil. The devil uses force to obtain his ends. God uses the power of love. The gospel transforms lives from the inside, not as a result of external pressure imposed by force of law.

Adventists are susceptible to using law to conform society to what we perceive to be God’s morality. And we will gladly join in this enterprise, many of us, until it is too late to extricate ourselves from a dangerous path. Law may well be the key to the devil’s plan to deceive Adventists.