By Colleen Tinker
I grew up in an observant Adventist family with parents who had lived through the Great Depression. Our Adventism did not forbid celebrating Christmas, but our prophet warned against Christmas indulgence only slightly less than she warned against Easter. My frugal mom and dad, committed to thrift and piety, made little of the day. We had trees with lights when my sister and I were very young, but as we reached our teens, whatever decorating that occurred at our house was done by my sister and me. We even cut a seedling fir tree from the woods outside our Oregon house one year and propped that pathetic branch in a pail of dirt in our living room, vainly trying to hide it with colored lights and tinsel.
My most vivid Christmas memories were of our annual steamed apple pudding and of our yearly Christmas Eve lutefisk which my Romanian mother would fix for my Swedish father. My sis and I disliked that lutefisk as much as my dad liked it, but I remember it as one of our few Christmas traditions.
I knew Christmas was the celebration of Jesus’ birth, and I knew He had come to die for my sins. I knew He was God and man, but I didn’t understand, when I was growing up, exactly what that meant. Mostly I thought of Christmas as a magical time outside our home. I loved the Christmas music on the radio, and I loved seeing the lights decorate the buildings in the city. In fact, it always seemed to me that somehow I could “catch” that magic if I knew how to try—I just never could figure out how to bring it home.
We sang “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” in our undecorated church, but there were no Christmas Eve services (they were Catholic!). And if Christmas fell on a Sabbath, we had to wait to open presents until after sundown. We could have no celebrating on the true holy Sabbath Day. After all, we believed Christmas was really pagan. Jesus wasn’t really born then! Sabbath would always trump Christmas.
Bait and switch
Decades passed. It was 1995, and Richard and I were beginning to study the Bible with our Christian neighbors. Richard had been privately certain they would see the light and convert to Adventism—it is a fact that Adventists seldom have non-Adventist friends without an agenda to convert them. Surprisingly, though, we were becoming more and more astonished that the proof-texts we had known as Adventists sounded completely different when we read them in the context of their chapters.
December came, and our neighbors invited us to go with them to see their nephew perform in a Christmas musical. The pageant was produced by an evangelical church in Yorba Linda, and it was my first experience seeing a Christian church celebrate Christmas. I vividly remember what I wore—a denim dress with a jacket—and how I felt as we walked into a “Sunday church” for a religious service, even though it was not on Sunday. I was excited and felt a bit daring—I was progressive enough to share a Christmas service with Sunday Christians and to imagine that I wasn’t all that different from them!
The lights dimmed, and the Christmas music filled the room as the drama began. The cast was skillful, and the leads had good voices. Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, and the angels announcing the birth to the shepherds were warmly familiar. I felt that almost-magical feeling that the carols and the manger always evoked—but then things went “south”. The musical left the Christmas story behind, and almost before I could catch my breath, the players were acting out Jesus’ trial, passion—and most horrifying of all—they portrayed the crucifixion!
I was outraged. This was “bait and switch”. The cross had absolutely nothing to do with Christmas, I felt, and including it in a Christmas musical was opportunistic and pathetic. Mention the cross at Easter if you must, but leave my Christmas alone! Christmas was sweet, sentimental—the magical Silent Night captured in glittery snow globes and celebrated with hot chocolate and carols and a glowing tree.
I left the church irritated. Christians had no business mixing up their holidays for the sake of proselytizing!
Months passed, and our ongoing study of whole books of the New Testament with our neighbors began to change me. Jesus, I was learning, was not a meek and mild man who came to show me that I, too, could avoid sin if I prayed enough. Furthermore, I began to see that God wasn’t expecting me to keep the law in order to prove to Him that I was safe to save. Jesus had done that for me!
In Adventism, the gospel was nebulous. It involved accepting Jesus into my heart (an undefined act) and then keeping the Sabbath and restricting my diet so God and the world would know I was loyal to Him. It included the Health Message and the Three Angels’ Messages of Revelation 14—called by our prophet, “the gospel in verity”. Sometimes the gospel was identified as the hope of the Second Coming. Nevertheless, however we identified the Adventist gospel, it always included the seventh-day Sabbath, and it never included an understanding that Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection was all we needed in order to be right with God.
On the bottom line, Adventism did not teach that we are born dead in sin, with literal immaterial spirits that must be made alive through belief and trust in the Lord Jesus. When Richard and I learned who we really were—helpless, dead sinners who could never avoid sin by praying hard—and when we understood that Jesus is our Substitute, not our example of how to be saved, we knew we had to leave.
We had to face the shame of admitting we had thought we were true Christians, but we had believed in a false Jesus who was not really Almighty God. We had not understood that His blood literally cleanses us from our original sin. We had no idea what it meant to be born again. We had believed Jesus could have sinned and failed; His mission could have been a bust, and all creation would then be cast into chaos as the Trinity was broken up.
One day clarity came: Richard and I stood in the kitchen and knew we could not remain in Adventism when we no longer believed its teachings. We could not expect our sons to tell us the truth if we did not live in the truth we now believed. We could no longer give offerings to an organization that believed Jesus’ blood was not necessary for God to be “forgiving”, nor could we support a religion that taught Jesus’ atonement was not completed at the cross. Neither could we endorse a view of man that denied original sin. We had to leave the church we loved because it said we could not know we were saved. As Adventists, only our faithful obedience to the law would reveal our commitment to God, and that obedience could not be evaluated until Jesus came in judgment. Now we knew: Jesus had taken God’s judgment in our place. We could not deny Him by endorsing an anti-Christ gospel by continuing to function as Adventists. What we believed had to match our behavior.
Removing the grave clothes
In His sovereign mercy, the Lord planted us in a church where we could hear His word taught carefully, lovingly, and faithfully week after week. In 1998 Richard and I began listening to Gary Inrig preach the word, and reality became visible. It was shocking and exciting as our Adventist worldview was dismantled doctrine by doctrine in the light of Scripture. God was sovereign, and our free will was not the ultimate value in the universe. It was like discovering I had lived in an artificial world and suddenly bumping into the limits of my perception, realizing I had been lied to; reality was outside the paradigm I had learned, and only immersion in Scripture could fix me.
Leaving a cult, however, is not merely finding Jesus and going on. When a former cult member leaves her group, she has to be “deprogrammed” while concurrently being taught biblical reality. There is a carefully-constructed internal framework on which every detail of life has been hung in a cult-member’s head. The gospel of the Lord Jesus’ finished work is the key that unlocks that prison and births that person into eternal life, but then the grave clothes have to be unwound. The Christians who receive the new ex-cultist believer must understand how those grave clothes were wound around them in order to help the fragile young life become freed from them.
Why do I make such a point of telling you these details?
Insight in a letter
I received a letter recently from a man named Dave in North Carolina who lives in a heavily Adventist community, and his letter explains the need for Christians to understand what Adventists believe underneath their right-sounding words. Dave has never been Adventist, but because someone once gave him a copy of Ellen White’s The Great Controversy, he began to research. He has done his homework, and he understands the nature and depth of Adventist deception.
In his letter he told me of his elderly Adventist neighbor with whom he has had numerous gentle sparrings in the yard. Recently the neighbor became sick, and Dave visited him. He writes:
My wife and I went by his home to check on him. The first 15 minutes of our visit he unloaded the full Adventist doctrinal message on us like never before (emphasis on the Ten Commandments). He apologized for talking so long and asked if we had anything we’d like to talk about.
I retrieved my Bible from the car. I told him up front that I was going to explain, using the Scriptures without commentary, why I believe the Ten Commandments in their original old covenant form were obsolete; why I believe the fourth commandment is not a “moral commandment”; why the Sabbath is not the seal of God for the believer, and that salvation comes only through believing in Jesus’ finished work of salvation. He listened patiently, and at one point started following along in his Bible.
I was surprised how much he didn’t know the Scriptures. I thought, since he was so outspoken about God and the Ten Commandments, that he would know the Bible. But, as we read selected passages, I saw his countenance begin to fall. Several times my friend used Adventist/EGW explanations to interpret verses. When I brought to his attention that those weren’t biblical interpretations, it forced him to give the Scripture a second look. He seemed almost confused that the two interpretations were basically opposites.
In the end I told him the Sabbath was a shadow of the Substance—Jesus. He told me he would put some information together to explain the covenants to me. He prayed, we hugged and said we loved one another.
Afterward, I hoped what I told him didn’t make him feel [confused] the way I had felt when I read The Great Controversy. I began to think: maybe it is reckless to stir up an Adventist community with the gospel. Where might these people land if they leave the Adventist church? I have no doubt the Holy Spirit can direct them. But, I still pondered the idea of a community church plant that understands the complex Adventist doctrine and the impact it has on the Adventist member, and is equipped to minister to those questioning or separating from the Adventist church.
I’m not confident that local churches understand the Adventist doctrine well enough to satisfy the deep needs a separating Seventh-day Adventist would require. My experience (limited) is that most church folks in this area believe Sunday is the “Christian Sabbath” and that the Ten Commandments are the “rules that guide our lives”.
Please pray for my Adventist neighbor and his wife. Also, pray that if God wills, the pure gospel of Jesus Christ would invade our community. And lastly, that He would gather together a group to minister to those that might be questioning or separating from the Adventist church.
Thanks to all of you former Adventists for doing the hard work of compiling the resources that helped me cull out the lies and recognize the truth of the gospel of Romans 3.
Christian churches not prepared
Dave makes an excellent point: not all Christian churches are prepared to help people leaving Adventism unwrap their worldview.
Richard and I are blessed to be part of a new church planted in Loma Linda: Redeemer Fellowship. By God’s grace, we are growing, and in January we will be moving out of our current meeting place in the Holiday Inn Express conference room in Loma Linda and will be gathering in space vacated by another group. From this new space we can see Loma Linda Academy and Loma Linda University Medical Center. The Lord has provided this space in a community that is spiritually dark but masquerades as an angel of light. Loma Linda is one of the world’s largest centers of Adventism. It also has a large population of Catholics, and right on our doorstep are Muslims and a host of Mormons, Buddhists, Hindus, and pagans.
We at Redeemer Fellowship meet every Sunday to rejoice in our common faith in the Lord Jesus and to be strengthened by Gary Inrig’s faithful preaching of the Word, but we will also need to be alert. Whether we like it or not, we are being called to be apologists for the gospel.
The Christians at Redeemer Fellowship need to understand the Adventists who live around them and who may come through their doors—just as Dave said in his letter. Those who have never been Adventist cannot assume they understand their Adventist friends when they say they are saved by grace or that they have been “born again”. In fact, Adventists themselves often do not know that their understandings are different from Christians’.
The gospel does answer every warped cultic doctrine, but an Adventist can listen to the gospel and read the Bible and never “hear” what they say because of his Adventist interpretive grid. At the same time exiting Adventists are becoming immersed in Scripture, those who minister to them need to understand the worldview behind their benign-sounding words in order to help them emerge from the crippling paradigm that deafens them to truth.
Celebrating the Baby born to die
This Christmas I rejoice in the provision of a new venue for our fledging congregation. As I look at my local church, I am overwhelmed at the way the Lord is building this body and placing people of all ages and gifts together for His glory.
Even more amazing to me, though, is the fact that knowing the real Jesus of the Bible has completely changed Christmas. It’s no longer a sentimental birth story with sweet shepherds and kings and sparkling stars. Now it is a miracle. God the Son took on flesh, and “all the fulness of deity dwelt in Him bodily.” Jesus was born a human baby—but WITHOUT a dead spirit. He was the only baby ever born who did not have to be born again; He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and Life was His from the moment of conception.
Now, I cannot think of Christmas without also seeing the cross. Now I understand that the blood of Jesus—the blood that so offends the people who still live in the Adventism I once embraced—is the reason that Baby was born. He was born to die, and Christmas is the day we celebrate the greatest gift God has given man.
This Christmas, rejoice in God the Son who became man in order to put away human sin through shedding His own blood. If, as you go through this Christmas season, you encounter Adventists, don’t assume they know the Lord. Realize they have a completely different set of definitions underneath their words than most Christians have.
The Lord who called us will equip us, and our willingness to understand the worldview of those He brings to us will help us unwrap the grave clothes from those who have been stunted by lifetimes of deception. The Baby who was born to die has given us His life, and He is walking with us into this new chapter of our life in Loma Linda.†