What Is a Seventh-day Adventist?
By Dennis Priebe
A number of years ago the Seventh-day Adventist Church voted to have twenty-seven brief statements describing the beliefs held in common by members of the denomination. Anyone becoming a member of the Adventist Church must state that he or she is in agreement with these twenty-seven statements. Do these statements define the essence of Adventism? Have we gotten to the heart of Adventism by reading these statements?
I understand the twenty-seven statements to be like a picket fence that defines the property lines. It tells you where your property ends and where the adjacent property begins. It distinguishes Adventism from other Christian groups. It shows why we are Seventh-day Adventists and not Baptists or something else. But does the picket fence tell us very much about the house that lies inside? Do the twenty-seven statements get to the essence of what it means to be a Seventh-day Adventist?
Seventh-day Adventism is also a way of life. We prepare for the Sabbath on Friday, we go to church on Sabbath morning, and we close the Sabbath at sundown. Our dietary choices are somewhat different than the typical American diet. We have grown up with a cultural heritage, and we are used to the lifestyle of being Adventist. Is this what it means to be a Seventh-day Adventist? Or is there more we need to understand to get to the heart of Adventism?
The Beginning of Adventism
When Jesus died for all mankind, was personal salvation secured for all who chose to receive it? Could the disciples of Jesus have the assurance that they would be saved because of the cross? Absolutely. Were there any Seventh-day Adventists standing around the cross? No. That happened eighteen hundred years before Adventism appeared on the scene. Yet forgiveness of sins and the assurance of salvation was offered right then to all who believed. So Adventism was not called into existence to offer the people the assurance of salvation, was it? That was taken care of long before there was an Adventist.
When Jesus was inaugurated as our High Priest in the heavenly sanctuary, to intercede for mankind for the next eighteen hundred years, were there any Adventists around then? It seems that Adventism was not needed for that work either. The work of Jesus in sprinkling our prayers with the incense of His righteousness was initiated long before there was an Adventist. The ministry of the Holy Spirit in nurturing and caring for Christians in a church setting did not need the existence of Adventism at all.
Now all of these things are vital to Christianity, and we are to hold them as very important for us today, but Adventists have inherited these truths from others. These truths were established without any need for the existence of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Then why was Adventism needed?
Revelation 14:7 tells us to "Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come." Now the hour of God's judgment began in 1844, and with it began the final atonement, the cleansing of the sanctuary, and the blotting out of sin. Was this the time period when Adventism appeared on the scene? Could it be that the existence of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is directly and intimately related to the cleansing of the sanctuary? Is that the reason for its existence? But what does this all mean? What are the issues at stake?
The Great Controversy
Satan has challenged God's character and His right to rule the universe. Satan has said that God's unfitness to rule is proved by His giving a law that could not be kept. Satan has had great success in advancing his claims in the great controversy. He has even gotten God's chosen people in the Old Testament to think that God is unfair and harsh. In the great apostasy after New Testament times Satan convinced Christians that God wants certain rituals and human works to supplement Christ's work at the cross. Just by reading the Bible and church history, you might think that Satan is going to win this battle.
This fear is addressed in Daniel 8:13 by several questions. How long will this go on? How long will God's good name be trodden underfoot? How long will the sanctuary be trampled? Will Satan win, after all? The answer comes in verse 14. No, this will not go on forever. After 2300 days the sanctuary will be cleansed. There will be an end to the defaming of God's good name. God will be vindicated. Romans 3:4 says it well. "That thou mightest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged." The word "justified" in this context means acquitted of charges, declared innocent, vindicated.
Now Jesus did vindicate God's law and His character in the most noble demonstration ever seen on earth. Jesus showed that God's law is good and His character is love. But one nagging question remained unanswered. Can sinful human beings who have spent half of their lives in rebellion really live without rebelling any more? Maybe Jesus could, but can they?
Some have expressed the thought that God's vindication was completed on the cross, and that nothing further is necessary to vindicate God and His government. But the evidence is clear that the vindication of God was not completed at the cross; that God is waiting for a final vindication before the end of sin on this planet. "All heaven is waiting to hear us vindicate God's law." (RH April 16, 1901) There is still a need to prove that God's law is good and right for sinners.
"Christ is waiting with longing desire for the manifestation of Himself in His church. When the character of Christ shall be perfectly reproduced in His people, then He will come to claim them as His own." (COL 69) This famous quotation clearly says that the second coming must wait until Christ's character is seen in His professed people. The only possible reason for such a hold in God's plans for this earth is that something must yet be demonstrated about Satan's charges and God's character.
Revelation 14:5 describes the last generation who will live on earth before Jesus comes. "And in their mouth was found no guile: for they are without fault before the throne of God." God has made an incredible promise here. He claims that He will produce a people who will be without deceit or fault of any kind. In DA 671 is this classic statement: "The honor of God, the honor of Christ, is involved in the perfection of the character of His people." It is not our honor or salvation that is involved here, but God's name and His character. He has promised that He will perfect His people. Can He really do it? If He cannot make us perfect, then His word is a lie and Satan wins the great controversy. It's that simple.
"The honor of His throne is staked for the fulfillment of His word unto us." (COL 148) Whenever God promises something, He puts His name behind His promise. His throne was at stake when Christ came to our earth, and His throne is at stake in what He will do through the last generation. "Every character will be fully developed; and all will show whether they have chosen the side of loyalty or that of rebellion. Then the end will come. God will vindicate His law and deliver His people." (DA 763) It is important to note that God does the vindicating of His own name, but it is also vital to understand that He will do the vindicating in the characters of His people. The full development of righteous and wicked characters is necessary for the final demonstration of God's character and law. The end of sin on this planet is clearly dependent on God's vindication as He brings the plan of redemption to completion.
It is significant that Ellen White calls all of this the final atonement. At the cross the sacrifice was completed but the atonement was not completed there. Right here we have the difference between Adventism and all other Christian religions. The final atonement is all about when and how God will win the great controversy and how soon Jesus can come. This means that the purpose of Adventism's existence is to prove that Satan is a liar and that God is telling the truth in the great controversy. It's that simple. That is the message and the essence of Adventism.
The only hope for eternal security from rebellion ever arising again in the universe is when no one will ever consider Satan's accusations any more because they have been proved false in the arena of demonstration. Of course this requires the involvement of God's people in this demonstration. Our role is to allow God to come into our lives and do what He said He could do--cleanse our hearts and make us totally obedient to Him.
Do you really want to end sin on this planet, my friend? Are you tired of hearing about child abuse? Are you tired of hearing about the senseless violence of wars of aggression? Are you tired of hearing about the abuse of animals over which man has been given dominion? Are you tired of hearing about injustice in the court system, where too often the abundance of wealth determines the outcome of a case? There is only one way to end these problems, and that is the second coming of Christ. These abuses cannot be solved by picketing or boycotts or rioting. These methods might alleviate some of our pain but they are not the solution. The only way the ugliness of sin can be stopped is by allowing Jesus to come back. Please note that I did not say waiting for Jesus to come back. He is waiting for us; we are not waiting for Him.
The mission of Adventism is different from the mission of any other Christian group that has ever existed. Adventism's mission is different from the mission of the early Christian church; it is different from the mission of the Waldenses; it is different from the mission of Martin Luther. Our mission is completely unique. It has never been given to any other group of people on the face of this earth. The reason is simply that we are living in the Day of Atonement when the cleansing of the sanctuary is in process, and there are unique issues involved with this Day.
When Can Christ Return?
The second coming of Christ is not possible just at any time, because it is dependent on God's victory in the great controversy. In the 1840's God led out a people, and they had a marvelous experience. But after the great disappointment things fell apart, and God's people didn't have the courage to move forward unitedly. They fragmented and only a few survived through this difficult period. Jesus wanted very much to return very soon after 1844 but He could not because His people were not united and moving together with Him. So Jesus put things on hold, much like space launch missions in Florida are put on hold when something is wrong with the equipment.
After forty years of wandering in the wilderness, Jesus came again to His people and asked them if they were willing to move forward with Him. But once again God's people balked. Instead of asking "What does God's Word say?" they were asking "What do our leaders say?" We have spent a good part of the last century denying that we really delayed Christ's coming for one hundred years. We have claimed that our forefathers' repentance was genuine and we have been teaching righteousness by faith ever since. In reality the denial of the 1888 message is just as real and strong today as it was in 1890. As a result of our failure in the 1890's Christ had to put His plans on hold once again, this time for over a century. Now He is making yet another appeal to the Seventh-day Adventist movement He is telling us that He is ready to take us home if we are ready to move unitedly with Him. The question for us is identical to the question of 1888. What will happen this time? Will we respond in such a way that God can finally carry out His plan, or will we continue to put our selfish interests above the vindication of God in the great controversy?
Lessons From Israel
When God called Israel to be His chosen people, it was not His purpose to qualify them alone as worthy of salvation. He wanted Israel to be His witness to the nations of the excellence of His character and His government. The purpose of Israel's existence was to enlighten the world so that all would welcome Jesus when He came to earth. Did Israel succeed or fail in its mission? We know that they did not prepare the world for the first coming of Christ. Please notice the approach of Christ in light of their failure. Have you noticed that Jesus spent very little time in outreach to the Gentiles--the world? Most of Jesus' time and energy was spent on efforts to restore Israel by bringing them to repentance. They were the people through whom God wanted to enlighten the world. So Jesus spent most of His time doing the most difficult work of all--breaking down the walls of apathy and prejudice to bring them back to obedience to God.
Now the purpose of Adventism is exactly the same as the task given to Israel. God is not qualifying Adventists alone as worthy of salvation, but He wants us to be His witness to the world of the excellence of His character and His government. Our mission is to prepare the world for the second coming of Christ. Now the question must be honestly addressed: Is Adventism succeeding in its mission?
Perhaps we can find an answer in an editorial by William Johnsson in the Adventist Review of July 3, 1986. A Gallup Poll was taken to determine the attitude of the public to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. "Although 70 percent of respondents say they have heard or read about the church, when asked what they like best about us, 52 percent can give no answer. Another 21 percent say 'Nothing in particular.' That is, fully 73 percent of the public can think of no attractive feature about the church. That figure is almost exactly paralleled by responses to the question 'What do you like least about Adventists?' Again 51 percent gave no answer, and another 20 percent say they don't dislike anything in particular. The church's failure to project a sharp image concerns me I'm troubled that we are hiding our light under a bushel."
In another public survey reported in the Adventist Review of February, 1995, only 53 percent had heard about the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In addition, there was a marked increase in the number who misidentify us with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Jehovah's Witnesses.
Now we must ask the question again: Are we succeeding or failing in our mission to prepare the world for the second coming of Christ? The truth which is very difficult for us to face is that we are in jeopardy of failing just as the Jews failed two thousand years ago.
Inspiration spells out God's plan for this church. "Christ designs that heaven's order, heaven's plan of government, heaven's divine harmony, shall be represented in His church on earth. Thus in His people He is glorified." (DA 680) Notice that God is glorified when His church reveals heaven's plan of government to the world. Is heaven's plan of government currently being seen in the Seventh-day Adventist Church? Do human plans too often dominate over God's expressed will for this church?
"God's people have a great work to do.. ..The world must see in the church of God true order, true discipline, true organization." (Ms. 30, 1900) This is when we will fulfill our mission and allow Jesus to return to this world "Through the church eventually will be made manifest the final and full display of the love of God to the world that is to be lightened with its glory." (TM 50) Notice that God's love will be seen through the church. It will not come through angels or the rocks, but through God's people. Thus the success of God's church in representing His character is very important to the finishing of the great controversy.
Since our church is currently not succeeding in its mission to prepare the world for Jesus' return, what are we to do? One approach that many are adopting today is to ignore the problems in the Adventist Church and to go out to the world to do outreach work. This approach is attractive because Jesus told us to take the gospel to every nation, and because many are receptive to the gospel, while the church seems to be very resistant to any major reformations in its midst. Further, if we just forget about the disobedience within the church and concentrate on soulwinning, we will receive much praise from the church itself for the good work we are doing. In addition, it is personally fulfilling to give Bible studies and lead people into readiness for baptism.
But is this approach the one Christ used when He came to His failing chosen people? For three and one-half years Jesus spent His time trying to restore His precious church that was in danger of self-destruction. He spent almost no time in outreach to the Gentile world, in spite of the fact that many Gentile souls were in need of the gospel. Jesus' first priority was trying to restore His people so that they could give the message of truth to the Gentile world.
The late Henry Baasch, who served as a conference president, shares with us a vital principle and an important warning. "Music is made up of three parts: melody, rhythm and accompaniment. All three are essential, but are not equal in importance. The melody should have the most prominent part and should not be overshadowed by the rhythm or the accompaniment. The evangelization of the world by means of extensive preaching, teaching, and printed propaganda, and the expenditure of large sums of money for campaigns, buildings, equipment, travel, et cetera--vital though all these are--do not, in and of themselves, fulfill the principal commission entrusted to the remnant church. These are not the melody. At the most, they are the accompaniment.
"The melody which is to ring forth, sketchily at first, but every more clearly, is the song of victory over sin, the song of Moses and the Lamb, soaring higher and higher, closer and ever closer to the heavenly Pattern, further and further away from the world, to the climactic height of a full and final display of His grace in vessels of clay, but divested of all earthliness and testified unto by the declaration of the angel: 'Here is the patience of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus." Revelation 14:12. For the first time this testimony will be said of a whole community of saints.
"Let Laodicea be warned! At one time David fell victim to the magic influence of numbers (cf I Chronicles 21:1)--that Satan-inspired sport which so slyly leads to pride and self-complacency, which so trickishly substitutes quantity for quality, mediocrity for true merit, and pomp for paucity. The charm exerted by numbers, size, and quantity, if allowed to prevail, will fill Laodicea's pews with 'illegitimate children' and swell her ranks with a mixed multitude which, as of old, could bring her march to a standstill at another 'Kadeshbarnea.' God forbid that such a thing should happen!
"Let Laodicea ponder her way! Let her pause and take inventory, let her consider and define where she has strayed from the Pattern in her multiple activities: ministerial, educational, medical, social, etcetera. Let her frankly confess her shortcomings, plead for forgiveness and then chart her future course in harmony with the divine counsel. Let her shun the subtle art of rationalizing, which makes evil appear good and transgression a necessity, trying to 'update' what is eternally fresh and young--ever the head and never the tail.
"Unless Laodicea will submit to a candid self-examination and to an uncompromising self-discipline, there will descend upon her a tempest that will sift and shake her ranks and sweep to one side the whole of her household, with its elaborate furnishings and costly equipment, clearing the stage for the Lord Himself to take hold of the reins (cf Testimonies to Ministers, 300; Testimonies, vol. 5, 80; Romans 9:28) with an army of 'unidentified' ones whose names and pictures may not be found in any register, or church paper, or book, nor diffused from any desk or platform." (Our Firm Foundation March, 1989)
Remember that this strong warning does not come from a critic of the church, but from a leader in the church who saw clearly what constitutes success and failure in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
The primary mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is the vindication of God. It will be accomplished though the cleansing of the heavenly sanctuary. But before the sanctuary in heaven can be cleansed from all the records of sin, the sanctuary of our hearts must be cleansed from the pollution which continues to dishonor God's name. Adventism is all about God's victory in the great controversy, as He finishes His six thousand year struggle against the lies of Satan.
The secondary mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is world mission and outreach through Bible studies and soulwinning. When the primary mission is understood and addressed, the secondary mission will find abundant success. If we try to reverse these priorities, as we have been doing for many years, we will continue to fail. Outreach alone is not the solution to our sickness. We have been putting the cart before the horse, and it simply hasn't worked. If outreach is to be successful, it must flow from a consecrated and obedient heart.
Remember that Christ's efforts while on earth were to restore His people to obedience from the heart. Likewise our outreach must flow from total obedience and total love, with no more rationalizing so that we can do what our selfish hearts desire. We must abandon cultural values to determine what is right and wrong. Most of the problems in the Adventist Church today are the result of placing cultural values above a "thus saith the Lord." Will we decide once and for all to obey God, or will we continue to try to force Him to do it our way? The way we answer this question will determine the success or failure of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Ezekiel lived in a time of apostasy and backsliding, and God gave a special message to him for Israel. "So thou, O son of man, I have set thee a watchman unto the house of Israel; therefore thou shalt hear the word at my mouth, and warn them from me." (33:7) "Say unto them, As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?" (33:11) This is not just God's appeal to His rebellious chosen people in Ezekiel's time; it is His appeal to His rebellious chosen people today. God is saying, "Please turn back before it is forever too late. why do you insist on dying, O house of Adventism?" Can we really be faithful Adventists and ignore this question? Part of our responsibility as church members is to help heal our church so that it can fulfill both its primary and secondary missions. Sometimes the surgeon's knife is painful and the healing process is difficult, but our gracious God is the Master Physician.
Right now there are some carefully laid traps by which Satan is trying to subvert this process of healing. One trap is a compromised gospel, a gospel which says that since
Jesus did everything that was necessary, all we need to do is believe and the rest is taken care of. Then we have the absolute assurance of salvation. This gospel has been coming into Adventism for the past thirty years and has been gaining great strength in the past ten years. It is a gospel which gives false assurance of salvation, because it promises that we can be saved while still sinning. It teaches that we can ignore our little sins--our besetting sins--because Jesus loves us unconditionally. As long as we continue to believe in Him as our Saviour, we continue to be in a saving relationship with Him, regardless of our continued sinning. This trap may cause the loss of more sincere Adventists than any of Satan's other traps.
Another trap laid by Satan is the trap of humanism and cultural priorities. Here we determine what is right and wrong by the best human thinking available. We take surveys and determine what should be done based on these surveys. We ask for the best scholarly research and the best logic, while we set aside inspired counsel as outdated, in need of cultural reinterpretation.
Another trap is having a critical spirit. Some see clearly the problems in the church and spend their entire time exposing and delineating the sins of the church. Satan leads these individuals to become negative about everything they see.
Then there is the most subtle of all Satan's traps--the moderate trap. We all want to be balanced; we want to avoid the extremes on both sides. We realize that there are some problems in the church, but we hear about all the souls being won, and we conclude that things must probably be headed in the right way. With all our progress and growth, things can't be too bad, can they? The problems must be someone else's problems, so we can safely ignore them. Even though our schools and hospitals are having difficulties, we'll just keep our mouths shut--it's safer that way. When strange music and worship styles come into our churches, we will make the best of it. Yes, it is very tempting to stay out of the fire so that we will not get burned.
But is this silence in harmony with Ezekiel's appeal? Are we faithful watchmen if we remain silent while the enemy climbs over the walls? Or will we do what we can to save and heal our church? We cannot have a unique Adventist witness without a unique Adventist message. The gospel of Adventism is different from the gospel of contemporary Christianity. Will we let that gospel die? Our understanding of the great controversy between Christ and Satan is totally unique. Will we let it die by our silence? Our understanding of the relationship between law and grace is unique. Even our understanding of health reform is unique, because we do not live healthfully to avoid disease or to live longer, but to allow God to fully sanctify the soul. We need to uphold the highest lifestyle standards, so that God has a chance to win the battle for our minds.
We have a unique understanding of a modern-day prophet, in which God speaks with just as much authority as He did in Paul's day.
Are we willing to be Seventh-day Adventists today? Are we willing to prepare the way for the final vindication of the character of God? Are we willing to live in the house behind the picket fence? The price is high, but the reward is beyond anything we can imagine.
"If thou hast run with the footmen, and they have wearied thee, then how canst thou contend with horses? And if in the land of peace, wherein thou trusted, they wearied thee, then how wilt thou do in the swelling of Jordan?" (Jeremiah 12:5) Today we are in the land of peace and we are running with the footmen. Ahead of us are the horses and the swelling Jordan. This is our preparation time, the time to strengthen our characters. If the church militant is ever going to be the church triumphant, then we must get serious about the name Seventh-day Adventist. We must know who we are and why we exist. We must get our primary mission and our secondary mission straight, so that our efforts can be blessed by God. Let us pray together that the hard ground of our hearts may be broken up, so that the refreshing early rain may lead to the powerful latter rain. And above all, let us pray that this generation of Seventh-day Adventists will be the last generation to live on a sin-cursed earth.