Harold Lindsell, in Christianity Today, has raised the question, "Is Seventh-day Adventism evangelical?" His article and the decision of the editors to publish it indicate the Christian world is not dismissing Seventh-day Adventism lightly. Apparently SDA is here to stay until the judgment day; so it seems well that responsible evangelical leaders should cross-examine it, provided they can do so with some of the humility and the seeking spirit which they rightly ask of Adventists.
As one from the rank and file of Seventh-day Adventist ministers, and as a lifelong son of the Advent Movement, I am concerned that this cross-examination by responsible religious leaders of other Christian communions be conducted in a way that will be purgative upon us rather than purgatory to us. We have had too much of the prejudiced kind of criticism filled with glaring inaccuracies regarding Adventist beliefs. On the other hand, we welcome a Biblical examination of all our teachings.
It is only fitting, however, that the attention of Mr. Lindsell and the editors of Christianity Today be called to certain observations in the Lindsell article which cannot serve the evangelical world any constructive purpose in dealing with Seventh-day Adventism.
Source Material Inadequate
To begin with, Dr. Lindsell's selection of source material precludes his arriving at the facts in the case. His verdict is: Adventism teaches a salvation of grace plus works; but what is the primary reference he asserts makes "the conclusion inevitable"? He bases it largely upon the comments of a lone author, whose Adventist publisher, the Review and Herald, is not a synod of censors. More than half of his pertinent documentation on this point is from this one pen. It would appear that the question under discussion was: "Have certain isolated Adventists shown some degree of legalism?" rather than the purported question, "Is Seventh-day Adventism evangelical?"
A critic is hard pressed to document his point when Adventism collectively is stamped with the observations of isolated authors, especially so when more significant, indicative, and recent materials are available. Dr. Lindsell omitted the pertinent statements both of Ellen G. White and of Questions on Doctrine. It would seem more fitting for our critics to cite materials that clarify our institutional doctrinal position rather than materials that confuse it.
To support his contention that Adventists teach salvation by grace plus works, Mr. Lindsell quotes a statement from Questions on Doctrine that appears on pages 410-413 under a different subject, that of "The Investigative Judgment." Why did he not rather quote from the entire chapter that deals with "Questions on the Law and Legalism," and specifically from Question 14, "The Relationship of Grace to Law and Works"? Note these passages:
According to Seventh-day Adventist belief, there is, and can be, no salvation through the law, or by human works of the law, but only through the saving grace of God.—Questions on Doctrine, p. 135. (Italics supplied.)
Salvation is not now, and never has been, by law or works; salvation is only by the grace of Christ.Ibid., p. 141. (Italics supplied.)
We profoundly believe that no works of the law, no deeds of the law, no effort however commendable, and no good works . . . can in any way justify the sinner. . . Salvation is wholly of grace; it is the gift of God.--Ibid., p. 142.
Misinterpretation of Source Material
Lindsell further complicates any attempt to arrive at the truth of Adventist teaching by inserting his own words within a source quotation. (Other authors have used deletions also to the same end.) He states: "The following are extracts from SDA writings," but in the indented quotation he inserts his own words, without any indication of having done so: "(they are not justified when they receive Christ, but become, as it were, candidates for eternal life)." It is left to appear that this parenthetical inclusion is contained in the book quoted. Yet this is not the case, and, indeed, the inserted statement is diametrically opposite to the truth the book teaches.
How can he say that Adventists teach that men "are not justified when they receive Christ"? As an SDA I have always been taught that I am wholly justified when I receive Christ. "Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 5: 1). Tertullian's interpretation as set forth in the Lindsell article is entirely foreign to our theology.
Lindsell perpetuates another common error by which critics approach Adventism. He gives his own explanation of what Adventist authors mean by what they say rather than presenting the understanding and teaching Adventists draw from what their authors say. How a people understand and interpret their own authors to the world determines their collective teaching and belief. If critics continue to by-pass Adventism's interpretation of its own authors and are to substitute their own interpretation, they cannot get at the real Adventist theology.
It appears to me that Lindsell proceeded to test Adventist evangelicalism by one of his own "theological accretions." He stated, "According to SDA teaching, men can and do lose their salvation," as though he were among that segment of evangelicals who believe man cannot fall from grace. He is entitled, of course, to believe this if he does, but I cannot see how he has a right to deny Adventists an evangelical index for believing that men can fall from grace. Some Baptists and certain other denominations that are classified as evangelical hold the same viewpoint. For that matter, so does Paul, who describes some who "are fallen from grace" (Gal. 5:4).
The Sabbath and Salvation
As for the bearing our Sabbath position has on our teaching of salvation—the point to which Mr. Lindsell attached most significance—our position is no different in nature from that of certain accepted evangelical churches with respect to other commandments of the Decalogue, such as the second and the seventh. Many evangelically accepted brethren would deny that a professing Christian could attain heaven or remain saved by grace while knowingly, willfully, and habitually bowing to images or committing adultery. Why then should we be classified as nonevangelical because we hold a similar position about another commandment in the same Decalogue—the Sabbath of the fourth commandment.
If a professed Christian, after receiving all the evidence God has given him in the course of all his opportunity to discern and obey divinely revealed truth, still habitually disregards any of the commandments, including the fourth, not only Adventists but others contend that he has fallen from grace. Numerous evangelicals of many faiths could say this same thing with reference to other habitual practices they consider sin, and yet be considered evangelical. I think all the responsible among us recognize that it is not our right to say just when God holds any person responsible for new light.
Why the Sabbath Emphasis?
Seventh-day Adventists place emphasis on the fourth commandment, not because it has a meritorious bearing on the doctrine of salvation—such a thought is incongruous to us—and not as if the fourth commandment were more important than all the others, but because it has been changed, obscured, and neglected by man. Prevailing practices are in contrast to the practice of Christ and His apostles with respect to the Sabbath. We believe this has had unfortunate theological, moral, and practical consequences upon the church, the individual, and the world.
We do believe that the substitution of the first for the seventh-day Sabbath is a part of the postapostolic apostasy to be repented of by Christians, just as most Protestants in the Reformation era believed that the practice of images in the churches was a part of the Roman apostasy from the second commandment, and therefore to be repented of. We do envision a final test in the world based upon this distinction, for it is the most critical and unmistakable theological holdout of organized Christian religions against the authority of God.
Such tests are not exceptions to the rule in the history of God's revelation. Surely Christians will agree that Biblical evidence attests the fact that from time to time God has tested, by critical issues, the claims His people have made to divine salvation. Noah was saved by faith, but the test of his faith was whether he would prepare and enter the ark. Israel was saved in the Passover by faith in the blood, yet the test was whether they would sprinkle the blood in a certain place. Christ's sayings declare, "Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them," and, "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 7:20, 21).
No SDA I know thinks in terms of being "saved by grace and kept by works," as Lindsell puts it. Seventh-day Adventists do not believe that the Sabbath is either a procurer or a preserver of salvation, but rather, that it is a sign of something vital and significant, a sign that ultimately will hold a critical meaning for an enlightened world. It is also a test that now holds great meaning for each individual as he comes face to face with it.
Suggestions for Critics
We welcome sincere Christian critics who will employ fair and scholarly methods, not to dig up our past to obscure our present, but to get at the heart of our positions rather than nibbling at the periphery. Such will stick to fundamental issues, and will not create for us associations of beliefs we do not hold. All Christian communions need to face the facts of divine revelation in a prayerful and teachable spirit of humility.
In resolving the question, Does SDA belong to the evangelical fold? it should be remembered that there are various definitions of evangelical. The question should be settled as quickly as is reasonably possible. Time is at a premium. We do not want to spend the time to protect our shins, that we need to spend to help God to save men from sins. I believe the question is valid and vital, and that answering it is good for Adventist thinking. But let us get on from here. There are other serious, pertinent questions that need our mutual stimulus and Christian brotherhood.
The question soon should become, not, Is Seventh-day Adventism evangelical? but, How can the movement better implement its evangelical ministry to its fellow men? To hasten the further implementation of an evangelically oriented theology will be no small task for Adventists.
Flexibility of Spiritual Progress
The most hopeful aspect of the scene is that Seventh-day Adventism is experiencing a brighter day of sincere Christian scholarship. Some in its ranks have undergone the pain of discovering that our history is not without its problems, that Adventism was not suddenly handed the whole truth on a platter, and that we have much to learn as well as much to share. It behooves us to humble ourselves among Christian brethren. We believe we have something to offer and we had better be examining the reasons why we have not yet fulfilled the destiny we believe we should have fulfilled a half century ago.
To some SDA ministers the question has become, not, Is something wrong with the message God has commissioned us to present? but, How well do we comprehend the message that is essentially ours to bear? How may we purify our concepts, modify the content of our evangelism, and engineer the appropriate corresponding methods?
We would be haughty souls, indeed, to suppose we cannot find stimulus and inspiration from the critics outside our ranks if they will practice toward us the principles of Christian scholarship, and if they will extend to us the hand of Christian brotherhood.