By Colleen Tinker
Frequently we hear Adventists (and questioning Adventists) say things such as these:
- I never heard Ellen White read, and I didn’t have all that fear you talk about.
- I didn’t know what the investigative judgment was, and I didn’t think I had to be perfect.
- I believed that we were saved by grace and not our works.
- I believed that Jesus died for my sins; I thought I would be saved.
- I always believed in righteousness by faith.
Similarly, on November 4, Randy Roberts, the senior pastor at Loma Linda University Church, preached a sermon on the Reformation declaration Sola Gratia (Grace Alone). Although he stated at the beginning of his sermon that Martin Luther was convicted by the gospel of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, writing that this gospel was the power of salvation to all who believed (Rom 1:16-17), Randy’s sermon explained that God’s grace overlooks our sin and does not hold us responsible for its guilt. He culminated his sermon with an example of a well-known football player who missed a determining pass in an important game, thus causing his team to lose. The team returned home with this much-loved player who had miserably failed at the hight of the game trying to hide himself in shame at the back of the team as they exited the plane.
To his surprise, hundreds of local townspeople had turned out to greet their defeated but loved team. Then, against all odds, they began to chant this player’s name. They wanted to see and honor him. The town clearly forgave his failed play, and they honored him like a returning hero, with a reporter even blaming the turbulence from a news helicopter for throwing the ball off course instead of blaming the player who had missed his throw.
This love of the player, this absolution of guilt and forgetting of the failure that had marred his game, Randy explained, was grace. This is an example of God’s grace which causes Him not to hold our sins against us. He loves us and does not count people’s sins against them.
Randy did not explain HOW to access this grace, nor did he articulate how the gospel shines the light of truth on each person’s depravity and sin, leading one to repentance and to the acceptance of Jesus’ blood as the propitiation for sin. Rather, he implied that God is a God of grace who has already removed the guilt of sin from us—presumably (although not explained) because Jesus’ death and resurrection removed guilt from all people. The sermon’s appeal was to embrace the grace and to live as one forgiven without explaining that we must repent and believe, trusting Jesus’ blood as a personal payment for our sin, a payment we must trust and a Sacrifice to whom we must submit.
Not only was Randy’s sermon lacking the clear articulation of the gospel and our relationship to it, it was also lacking true Adventist doctrine. In fact, it dovetails nicely with an article published this week in the Adventist Review. Written by Ivan and Olivia Ruiz-Knott, the article entitled “Survivor[s]” tackles the question of how they and other young professional Adventists like them survived growing up in Adventist ghettos and stayed loyal to the Adventist organization. The article describes an idyllic childhood in an Adventist community, then it admits that many such Adventists grow up and “long gone is their commitment to Adventism.”
The authors then pose the question: “Could it be, somehow, that raising our kids in an Adventist university town might have worked against everything we had hoped and prayed for?”
Referring to the book Seeking a Sanctuary by former Adventists Keith Lockhart and Malcom Bull, the Ruiz-Knotts admit the authors might be correct in their assessment. In the words of the Ruiz-Knotts, Lockhart and Bull “suggest that the Adventist Church—for all its shut-door and open-door origins—functions like a revolving door: bringing in low-income, uneducated families, and spinning out affluent, non-church-affiliated professionals who feel they have need of nothing…To these authors, one of the many notable things about Adventism is that it can serve as an incredibly effective program for behavioral change—and the end result of that can lead, in many cases, to its undoing.”
The Ruiz-Knotts admit they can be sure of nothing, but as they see how many of their peers are leaving Adventism, they are unsure how to explain that they and others like them have stayed. They spend the rest of their article remembering the highlights of their Adventist upbringing and theorizing how those loved events might serve to cement serious Adventist young people to the organization. Interestingly, their memories and suggestions are heavy on sentiment and [maybe not surprisingly] short on doctrine.
Guesses about why some stay
The article describes six things the authors suggest helped them stay loyal to Adventism after becoming, as did their parents, “healthy, experienced, and well-liked church employee[s]”:
Their parents talked about their faith in God and related “their faith journeys”.
Their Bible teachers mentored them and gave them leadership opportunities.
They fraternized with people they liked who also were “wrestling with questions of what it means to follow Christ.”
They “dabbled in theology” and remained “aware that there is a kind of Adventism where nuance, honesty, and intellectual rigor are valued, one that leads to richer, fuller, and more beautiful views of God.”
They “went through the J.N. Andrews Honors Program” where they learned to be content to ask questions they couldn’t answer and to think critically. They learned that if “Adventism is the truth, it can stand up to questions or doubts or books by non-Adventist (or formerly Adventist) authors.”
Finally, they “learned grace”. “The Adventism preached at Andrews,” they say, “asserted that salvation is about a personal relationship with Christ and the change that that relationship creates. While we took this for granted, we’ve learned from so many people that this way of understanding the gospel isn’t preached from every pulpit…The God we find familiar is one who again and again turns out to be better than we had thought.”
The Ruiz-Knotts summarize their ideas with this assertion: “What we believe, though, is that it is rare for someone to reject the beautiful, life-giving, liberating good news of Adventism properly understood. So we pray for a chance to communicate it well.”
The article ends with the statement that the authors “dream of starting an intentional Adventist Christian community.”
The comment that “it is rare for someone to reject the…good news of Adventism properly understood” is the escape clause many Adventists use to avoid dealing with the confrontation of Adventism with biblical truth. When people leave Adventism because they cannot support Adventist doctrines, they often hear Adventists say, “If you had really understood Adventism, you would not have left.”
On the other hand, if people slide out the back door of Adventism but do not actually confront their beliefs, they remain Adventist in their worldview. In spite of the fact that the authors say those that go into the world did not “properly understand” Adventism, the fact is that their leaving reflects Adventism perfectly. If Adventism doesn’t “hold” them, they will be reluctant to visit any Christian church because they believe that Christians churches worship on the wrong day, and they believe that they teach a form of “spiritualism” by saying man’s spirit is with God after death. Adventism retains a firm grip on their view of reality.
While the article in the Review presents an open-minded, nostalgic view of growing up Adventist, the fact is that the writers are portraying a liberal view of both Adventism and Christianity. First, the writers betray a lack of belief in an absolute truth; in other words, in all their critical thinking and theological dabbling, they are not committed to a firm foundation of the gospel as found in God’s inerrant word.
The article’s authors found “a kind of Adventism where nuance, honesty, and intellectual rigor are valued,” but they say nothing about defining the gospel in their theological quests. In fact, they showed no concern for the gospel; instead, they were promoting loyalty to Adventism because, “properly understood”, it will tolerate “poor exegesis”, “reductionist arguments”, philosophical questioning, challenging ideas, and will yield a God who is better than they thought.
What about grace?
The bottom line for the Ruiz-Knotts as well as for Randy Roberts, however, is what they call “grace”. The Adventism they promote says “salvation is about a personal relationship with Christ and the change that that relationship brings.” This grace contrasts, say the Ruiz-Knotts, with the idea some Adventists have of a “God that they feared and constantly tried to appease.”
What, exactly, is this grace?
According to Randy Roberts, it is the characteristic of God that causes Him not to hold a person’s sins against him. There is a disturbing lack of explanation of how one experiences or accesses this grace, however, or how one develops a “personal relationship with Christ”. Neither Roberts nor the Ruiz-Knotts connected “grace” to the fact of Jesus’ death and propitiation for sin. Instead, it is portrayed as God’s willingness simply to overlook our sins—and we, apparently, are to believe He overlooks them simply because He has compassion.
“Grace” in Scripture is a word that often means “favor”—undeserved favor. God’s favor toward us is never expressed as a stand-alone quality that all humans can expect to receive in the same way. For example, Paul explains in Romans 3:9–18, quoting from the Old Testament, that no person born seeks for God nor pleases God. “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom. 3:18 quoting Ps. 36:1). “There is none righteous, not even one; there is non who understands, there is none who seeks for God” (Rom. 3:10–11 quoting Ps. 14:1–3, 53:1–3).
In fact, Scripture confirms that God’s grace does not guarantee that God forgives human sins apart from our response to the Lord Jesus and His shed blood for us. For example, John 3:18 says, “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already; because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”
In other words, all people are born judged, condemned before a holy God. Only by believing, by trusting one’s entire past, present, and future to the Lord Jesus and accepting His blood as payment for one’s sin, can one escape being judged and condemned. The difference between receiving God’s grace of forgiveness and not receiving it is belief or unbelief. Liberal Adventism—in fact, liberal Christianity that does not honor the Bible as God’s inerrant word—will say that because Jesus died, all humans are forgiven.
This conclusion, however, is not what Scripture teaches. We are forgiven when we trust and believe Christ. John 5:23b–24 says it this way: “He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him. Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.”
God’s grace and forgiveness are ours only in Christ; if we veer away from trusting Jesus alone and pursue law-keeping to attempt to prove our loyalty to Him, Paul has these words for us: “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Gal. 5:4).
Ephesians 1:7 specifically connects Jesus’ shed blood with our forgiveness: “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us” (Eph. 1:7-8).
Jesus shed His blood in an eternal sacrifice that is sufficient for the sins of the entire world. Our redemption, however, is “in Christ Jesus, whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed” (Rom. 3:24–26).
Because we are born spiritually dead and are by nature objects of wrath (Eph. 2:3), because none of us seeks God on our own or is able to please Him, He must exercise His grace to bring us to faith (Eph. 2:8-9). We must admit our sin and trust Jesus and His shed blood as the propitiation for our sin.
When we trust Jesus, we are placed into Christ where God’s grace of forgiveness and eternal life are ours! 1 John 5:9–12 says,
If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is this, that He has testified concerning His Son. The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in Himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.”
No matter how Adventists frame their beliefs, they are not biblical. Liberal Adventism, like liberal Christianity, does not respect Scripture as God’s own word to us, inerrantly inspired in the words He gave His writers. Thus, the Bible’s declarations of how one is saved are open to interpretation. Furthermore, since Adventism has Ellen White and the muddled legacy of her internally inconsistent works, Adventism takes the liberty of interpreting and editing Scripture in the same way they interpret and edit EGW.
Similarly, traditional Adventism does not believe the Bible is without error, either—and for the same reason. Ellen White, they say, was inspired just as the Bible writers are inspired, and if they must interpret and edit her, they feel free to interpret and edit Scripture as well. Thus they are able to rationalize that Ellen White told the truth when she said that Jesus did not enter the Most Holy Place in heaven until October 22, 1844, and that since that day, He has been conducting an investigative judgment to see who of those who claim Christ have confessed all their sins and faithfully kept the law.
Liberal (or progressive) Adventism as described by Ruiz-Knotts and as framed by Randy Roberts attempts to hold onto its historic identity while abandoning the fear of the classic investigative judgment and the rigidity of a regular diet of Ellen White. Yet holding onto their classic identity puts them out of step with the words of general conference president Ted Wilson who said in his recent sermon at Annual Fall Council:
Our prophetic message is core to all that we do in Mission to the Cities. The Seventh-day Adventist historicist understanding of prophecy and our historical-biblical approach to hermeneutical interpretation gives us the full picture of what we believe. Do not succumb to the aberrations of hermeneutical approaches being promoted by some. Do not fall for the false approach that we really are not much different than other denominations so let’s unite with them. Maintain strong religious liberty and freedom of conscience initiatives. Do not accept the bland neutralization of Seventh-day Adventist beliefs by individuals who say you only have to believe in Jesus and not doctrine. My friends, Christ is the center of every Seventh-day Adventist doctrine. Doctrines are not some legalistic remnant of days gone by, doctrines are Christ’s life and teachings in practical understanding. Jesus is the center of all that we believe and all that we do in His name. He is the One who accomplishes every good thing in any of us. We are saved by grace and faith in the One who is our all in all.
Under all the words, Adventism of any stripe is still Adventism. It is the corporate world organization which establishes policy and writes the doctrinal statements. It is the same organization which pays the salaries of all Adventist employees around the world. All Adventists have to abide by the same beliefs and practices. In general, all Adventists believe in the eternal importance of the seventh-day Sabbath. They believe in the material nature of man and the idea that in death, they cease to exist except as memories in the mind of God. They believe that God took a risk sending Jesus do die, that Jesus could have failed, and they believe that their own obedience helps to vindicate God’s character before an accusing Satan.
No matter how they protest, Adventists are still Adventists until they respond to the gospel, give up their false beliefs, trust in Jesus alone, and match their beliefs with their behavior and leave their former religion for true Christianity. The belief that God’s grace forgives everyone, that one merely needs to accept this belief as true without submitting oneself to trusting in Jesus alone, is a gospel-perversion.
Integrity demands one’s beliefs match one’s actions. If a person no longer believes Adventist doctrines, he is dishonest if he stays and poses as an Adventist—and he’s especially dishonest if he receives a salary from Adventism and pretends to endorse what he no longer believes.
Ultimately, there is only one gospel, and only in Jesus can one find forgiveness from sins. Only in Jesus can one be born into eternal life. Only in Jesus will our questions find answers, and only in Jesus will our hearts rest. †