I met Dr. Desmond Ford, a leading and unusual Adventist theologian from Australia, through the word of mouth and vibrant discussions with friends at Newbold College, England in the late seventies. Those encounters led me to seek, photocopy and read his writings and articles available in the college library.
Those were the days of my personal and desperate search for a kind and forgiving God, who I knew existed but was unable to grasp emotionally. I reached a point in my young life when a distant God would not do any more. Several articles written by Desmond Ford, published by the Ministry magazine, a leading Adventist magazine for clergy, and Spectrum, the journal of the Association of Adventist Forums, started working a miracle in my heart. They led me to dig diligently into the writings of the Apostle Paul, especially into his letters to the Romans and the Galatians, as well as the Letter to the Hebrews. All of those led me further, to other authors who majored in the questions of grace, complete Atonement in Christ, and justification by faith.
One of them was Robert Brinsmead and his magazine Present Truth, which later in the seventies became Verdict. Throughout the seventies and in the early eighties Brinsmead was publishing by many welcomed articles on the forensic justification. Robert Brinsmead and Desmond Ford, both Australians, for a while were very much complementing each other in their expositions of the grace of Christ. Then Brinsmead (around 1983) disappeared completely in the waters of deism. Ultimately, he completely dismissed the need for Jesus in his faith.
The other book which made a huge impact on me at that time, as hungry as I was for the grace of Christ, was Roland Bainton’s classic biography on the life of Martin Luther, “Here I Stand”. In the words of the German Reformer I too felt that “I had been born anew and that the gates of heaven had been opened. The whole of Scripture gained a new meaning. And from that point on the phrase, ‘the justice of God’ no longer filled me with hatred, but rather became unspeakable sweet by virtue of a great love.” All of this started as the writings of Desmond Ford on the grace of Christ and the “once-and-for-all” completed Atonement in Jesus were introduced to me, and led me further in my search for peace in Christ.
Then came Desmond Ford’s historical presentation, on October 27, 1979 to the audience of 1000 delivered at the Pacific Union College (PUC) Forum in Angwin, California. Ford challenged the SDA (Seventh-day Adventist) denomination with a message “The Investigative Judgment: Theological Milestone or Historical Necessity.” In the words of Mark A. Kellner Ford’s milestone presentation “signaled a major break with two of the church’s distinctive beliefs: the ‘investigative judgment’ of every person, living and dead, which Adventists believe God has undertaken since October of 1844, as well as the prophetic timing of the sanctuary cleansing described in Daniel 8:14, which led the pioneers to that 1844 time-frame.”
In other words, Desmond Ford argued that the cherished and distinct Adventist doctrine of the investigative judgment stood affront to the firm Biblical understanding that the Atonement was completed once and for all in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ on behalf of a sinner, without any contribution required from the saved sinner. He argued that the doctrine of the Investigative Judgment was an offense to the cross of Christ because it presupposed the necessity for human perfection in order to justify God’s own character.
Somehow, while Adventists have always believed in justification by faith of a repentant sinner, they have also believed that somehow a true believer needed to justify God’s character and His requirements by attaining complete perfection of one’s own character through perfect and complete commandment keeping. Adventists were taught that such perfection comes by grace too, through one’s continuing obedience to the Law of God, and especially by keeping the fourth commandment. And if such a high objective had never been achieved by anyone else throughout the entire history of human race except Jesus, the last generation of faithful Adventists will have to attain this goal fully in order for Jesus Christ to come again, and for his faithful ones to pass the scrutiny of the Investigative Judgment. Those “heroes of faith” of the last generation would then prove that, with God’s help, men and women of God can too, just like Jesus, keep all the commandments of God perfectly.
Desmond Ford’s message declared both, the Investigative Judgment doctrine and the doctrine of 1844 heretical and offensive to the Gospel of Christ, since both denied the complete atonement achieved in Christ on the cross, and made the eternal salvation of human race dependent on human performance. I still have a copy of the audio cassette with the recording of the Ford’s 1979 milestone presentation.
The recordings of the presentation went viral and created a spirit of anticipation unseen in the Adventist circles since the birth of denomination. Only another event in the denominational history, the release of the book “Questions on Doctrine” in 1957, which made Adventists more acceptable to the mainstream Evangelicals, created a similar kind of anticipation and angst in the Adventist circles. Some hated it, while others loved it. Within the denomination the church was divided between the scholars, pastors, students of theology, and lay people who downright rejected the presentation of Desmond Ford as heretical and damaging, and others who rejoiced anticipating a long needed and awaited reformation of the denomination that would bring it completely in tune with the Biblical understanding of salvation, rooted in Christ alone, and not in the subjective, always drifting feelings of our sanctification.
I identified with the latter group. I truly believed that very little of fine-tuning was needed for the SDA Church to become a pride of Protestantism. I wanted to believe that the day of Adventist Reformation was fast approaching through the bold ministry of Desmond Ford and a small band of his friends. Many young Adventists, ministers and scholars expected likewise. I was not the only one.
But the Adventist Reformation was not meant to take place then, or any time later.
Almost a year later following Desmond Ford’s historic presentation at PUC, Ford appeared at what was promised by the church administration a fair and discerning hearing to evaluate his elaborate document and presentation by which he would explain in detail his position on the doctrine of Investigative Judgment. “The meeting of the Glacier View Sanctuary Review Committee Aug. 10-15, 1980, was the most important event of this nature in Adventist history since the 1888 General Conference in Minneapolis,” wrote Raymond F. Cottrell, a prominent Adventist theologian. But what was promised by the church administration to be a fair discussion and evaluation, to which 100 Adventist scholars were invited, turned into a trial with the preplanned outcome. Denominational administrators outwitted the scholars and turned the proceedings into the final judgment for Desmond Ford. Hurriedly and in a humiliating way Ford’s employment with the Adventist church was terminated, and his ministerial credentials revoked. Ford could no longer preach nor teach in the SDA churches or educational institutions. In short, “the leadership of the denomination had deliberately misled the entire membership”, and especially the millions of its uninformed lay members.
Desmond Ford’s wife Gill Ford, a very eloquent Ford’s life companion, explained further the manipulative character of the Glacier View hearing in her recent Facebook post: “Des’s fate was decided before Glacier View. If you go careful through the witness statements, leaders from GC (General Conference) were saying this clearly ahead of time. Glen Parmenter told a group here in Australia a week before Glacier View that his father was going over to fire Des. In 1983 in the meetings you attended, Bob Spangler and Duncan Eva said the same. Parmenter insisted that Des must be dealt with that week.” In short, it seemed that the administration was not interested at all if the merits of Desmond Ford’s findings. They could not or they did not want to see that what Ford was teaching would have brought the Gospel of Christ to stand more prominent in the Adventist Church. Keeping the church unity at the expense of the truth of the Gospel mattered much more.
What followed was a sequence of sad events. From the denominational pulpits Desmond Ford was demonized, patronized and his views caricatured. The weekly Sabbath School lessons, advanced with a sense of renewed urgency the “historic”, traditional and distinctive Adventist beliefs in somewhat refined but still fundamentally unchanged ways.
It is not true, however, that after the Glacier View trial all who remained in the church were in agreement with the administration of the church. Many Adventists who in their hearts of hearts hoped to see their church reformed in tune with the Gospel were profoundly disappointed and mourned the injustice done to Desmond Ford, but have nevertheless decided to stay in the denomination. Over a number of years of my denominational and pastoral ministry I’ve had numerous opportunities to meet and talk with many who like me were affirmative of Desmond Ford but have nevertheless stayed in the church.
I remember very well the years of my theology studies at Newbold college, England (1984-1989). We, students of theology and religion, knew among ourselves very well those who aligned themselves with the traditional, fundamentalist, overly distinctive Adventism, and those who majored in the Gospel, grace and salvation without strings attached. When Desmond Ford spoke once or twice at the locations near Newbold College, there was quite a sizable representation of Newbold students attending his presentation, unofficially. Likewise, the post Glacier View audio tapes featuring debates on Sanctuary and Investigative Judgement between Desmond Ford and Smuts van Rooyen in one team, and William Shea and Alex Ortega in the other, were in wide circulation among the Newbold students of theology and religion at the time.
Later, when I assumed the pastoral work in Croatia and in Australia my sermons resonated with the messages of the Gospel about the finished work of salvation in Jesus, judgment with the gospel in its center, Atonement completed on the cross, justification by faith alone, and objective perfection of Christ. I never preached a sermon advocating the Investigative Judgment doctrine, or affirming the prophetic meaning of 1844. And when I served as pastor in Melbourne, Australia (1995-2000) I aligned myself with those Adventist pastors who were of the “evangelical” mind. We knew each other very well, and affirmed the work of each other. And, when Desmond Ford visited Melbourne on a couple of occasions at that time, some of us, evangelical Adventist pastors would come to his preaching venue to listen and share in the fellowship. Personally, it was his clear affirmation of the Gospel of Jesus that had attracted my attention and respect for Desmond Ford 40 years ago, and has continued to do so for so many years.
The most tragic and lasting outcome of the denomination’s handling of Desmond Ford almost forty years ago was that it actually managed to create a new generation of Adventists ignorant of the Reformation that was almost achieved but failed through a foul play in 1980. Ask any Adventist younger than 40 today if they knew who Desmond Ford was, and most of them would not know, or would have a very vague, caricatured knowledge of him.
Even more tragic outcome was that the kind of dishonesty by which the denominational administration treated the Glacier View findings 40 years ago continues to be practiced today. One only has to observe how the General Conference continues to treat unfairly the question of the women’s ordination. Similar kind of dishonesty has been applied also with the content-manipulation of the more recent Sabbath School lessons. The unnamed General Conference editors are taking the liberty to manipulate with the original and already approved texts, without the approval of the authors, even to the extent that their message often becomes the very opposite of what the authors intended to say. All of this is done so that the main teaching tools of the church would fit the ever increasing conservative, fundamentalist agenda of the current denominational leadership, who desires to emphasize again human perfection as the standard for our salvation. In short, the same dishonesty that led the administration of the Adventist church in the early eighties to use the Glacier View against Desmond Ford, seems to be leading the latest errants of the church.
Meanwhile, in all of those years Desmond Ford remained a gentleman, unfairly disgraced but never bitter, striped of his denominational credentials but always responsive to his God-given calling to teach, preach, write and serve whosoever would listen. Sadly, for the past forty years, his own denomination treated Desmond Ford as “a prophet and reformer without honor.” A true man of God, Desmond Ford lived and died with dignity borne out of his firm trust in the finished, saving work of Christ. His wife Gill wrote a short time ago: “He was a man always in a hurry, driven by a mission to serve God and proclaim Christ. He would urge you to take up the work he has laid down. As many of you know, he would say, Meet you here, there or in the air. He has gone ahead of us. And the world is a far colder place.”
I am not embarrassed to admit that the teachings of the Gospel, as delivered by Desmond Ford in the late seventies and early eighties, and later significantly shaped my faith, and directed it on Christ alone. What I really loved about Desmond Ford was his greatness manifest through genuine humility, his leadership of integrity despite humiliation and challenges, and his love for the truth of the Gospel of Christ which mattered to him more than his own status or advancement. Ford taught me that the truth matters.
In the end, one has to say this too: the Adventist denomination did make a visible shift towards a healthier, more balanced understanding of the Gospel of Christ, despite the fact that there have always been forces within that have been and are still trying to bring Adventism back to the more sectarian, almost cultic days of its infancy of almost two hundred years ago. Whatever advancement the church has made towards upholding a more Biblical view of the Gospel, this has taken place because of the major impact Desmond Ford’s work had on the church forty years ago, regardless of whether one gives a credit for this to Ford or not. Even the official Adventist paper “Adventist Review” agrees. Gerhard Pfandl wrote only a few days ago: “Most Adventist scholars and pastors today have accepted Ford’s definition of righteousness by faith.” After all, maybe there is a hope that Adventist Reformation is still in coming?
“Well done, good and faithful servant!” Matthew 25:23.
Ten years ago, The Campus Hill SDA Church, Loma Linda CA, invited Dr. Desmond Ford to preach to its congregation on the theme of Justification by Faith.
Read also: Paradox of Adventist Orthodoxy