Adventists and Evangelicals: another viewpoint

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Michelle Rader writes from Nashville, Tennessee.

Dr. Raymond Holmes's article "Adventist Identity and Evangelical Criticism" (Ministry, February 1993) makes an assumption and a charge that leave me uncomfortable. First, the article creates an impression that Evangelicals are for cheap grace. Second, the article charges as untrue the Evangelical criticism that Adventists walk the tightrope of legalism even as they continue to profess justification by faith. In addition, the article alleges that Evangelicals require of Adventists to abandon their insistence on sanctification if they wish to be considered evangelical. These points demand a fair inquiry and a rebuttal.

Evangelicals and cheap grace

Some Evangelicals may speak of a salvation experience that can be interpreted as cheap grace, but that does not mean cheap grace is the main thrust of Evangelical doctrine. Dr. Holmes him self quotes Donald G. Bloesch, a leading Evangelical scholar, as saying that the hallmarks of devotion to Christ are "(1) the believer being made righteous and (2) victorious living," and that "justification is to be fulfilled in sanctification if it is to benefit us."

But what is Evangelicalism? Evangelicalism is a movement that spans denominational affiliations. The identifying mark of an Evangelical is not a name but conformity to certain theological emphases. Historically, such emphases include belief that "salvation is an act of unmerited divine grace received through faith in Christ, not through any kind of penance or good works.... The guilt of sin is removed immediately, while the inward process of renewing and cleansing (sanctification) takes place as one leads the Christian life. By grace believers are saved, kept, and empowered to live a life of service."1

To understand contemporary Evangelical view on the "interdependence of justification and sanctification," we must look at what they themselves claim to believe:

1. The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, which contains the contributions of more than 200 Evangelical scholars, defines the relationship between justification and sanctification this way: "Justification and sanctification are not separate in time (1 Cor. 6:11), for God's justifying act sets the sinner apart for service; not separable in experience, but only in thought. ... To those who wondered whether men counted righteous on the ground of faith might go on sinning with impunity, Paul retorted that the faith expressed in faith-baptism so unites the convert to Christ that he dies with Christ to sin, is buried with Christ to all that belongs to his past life, and rises with Christ to new life in which sin's reign is broken." 2

2. Testimony of Willow Creek. Willow Creek Community Church, Chicago, is one of the largest Evangelical churches in North America. Its mission statement on small group ministries includes the following: "To connect people relationally in groups (four to ten individuals) for the purpose of growing in Christlikeness, loving one another, and contributing to the work of the church, in order to glorify God and make disciples of all nations."

The Evangelicals of Willow Creek then elaborate on that mandate: "It is God's plan that those who call on His name should be like Him in attitude and behavior. The church exists not just to collect the saints, but to transform them."

3. Testimony of a contemporary writer. John Stott, longtime prominent Evangelical leader and biblical scholar, writes the following about sanctification: "The cross is the means of our sanctification. . . . We have been crucified with Christ (2:20). We have crucified our fallen nature (5:24). And the world has been crucified to us, as we have been to the world (6:14). So the cross means more than the crucifixion of Jesus; it includes our crucifixion, the crucifixion of our flesh and of the world." 3

And later in Christianity Today: "The fruit of the Spirit is Christlikeness. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 3:18 that 'we ... are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.' Christlike holiness is God's purpose for you and me." 4

Clearly, a broad range of Evangelicals are well balanced in their understanding of the relationship between justification and sanctification and do not teach cheap grace. There are some within Adventism today who claim, as historic Adventist doctrine, beliefs that the Seventh-day Adventist Church officially rejects. Like wise, some call themselves Evangelicals but may preach beliefs that are definitely not a part of Evangelical theology.

The Adventist dilemma

In refuting the criticism of some Evangelicals that Adventists are legalists in practice, even though they profess justification by faith, Dr. Holmes makes an astounding claim: "Seventh-day Adventists have long believed and preached justification by faith.... Much of the criticism of Adventism as legalistic is based on ignorance, prejudice, changes within the Evangelical understanding of justification by faith, and an unwillingness to see the lordship of Christ and Christian obedience as essential components of salvation and discipleship."

Admittedly, there have been individuals in the Adventist Church including Ellen White who clearly understood the faith basis of salvation. But this does not mean the church as a whole has always been clear in its belief, proclamation, and practice on the doctrine of justification by faith. In fact, the recent Valuegenesis study shows that the majority of Adventist young people are not at all clear on this subject. Eighty per cent of them testify: "To be saved I have to live by God's rules." Sixty-two per cent believe that "the way to be accepted by God is to try sincerely to live a good life."

The perception that Adventism suffers from legalism is not based on ignorance, as Dr. Holmes argues, but on our own scientific studies! To say that there is no division or misunderstanding in our church on the subject of justification by faith is not realistic.

In arguing that Evangelicals "are prepared to relegate Seventh-day Adventists to the cult heap if we persist in maintaining a balance between justification and sanctification," Dr. Holmes quotes a Christianity Today article, "The Recent Truth About Seventh-day Adventism," by Kenneth Samples. In that article Dr. Holmes sees an "implied threat": "For Adventism to become 'thoroughly' Evangelical would require abandoning its understanding of the interdependence of justification and sanctification in salvation." But Samples holds no such threat. In fact his article reflects a thorough understanding of the Adventist dilemma and the debate over the gospel. I wish Dr. Holmes' s article had quoted the appeal of Samples: "Like any Christian group, if Seventh-day Adventism is going to be blessed of the Lord, its identity must come from a fidelity to the ever lasting gospel.... May it not be said that Seventh-day Adventism is more sure of its denominational distinctives than it is of the gospel." 5

Dialogue, not isolation

Walter Martin, the late Evangelical scholar whose research on Seventh-day Adventists led to the removal of the cultist label from Adventism, said of us: "They are sound on the great New Testament doctrines including grace and redemption through the vicarious offering of Jesus Christ 'once for all' (Heb. 10:10) and give evidence of 'life in Christ.' " 6

Such statements show clearly that prominent Evangelicals who study Adventism fully support our official doctrinal statements on salvation. Even though they do not agree with certain of our distinctive doctrines, they do not call for us to abandon belief in sanctification.

The fact is, many Evangelicals do preach Christ and the importance of holy living. This is the case with a broad range of Evangelicals of both yesterday and today, in line with the position of the Reformers. And there are many Adventists still confused over the basis of their salvation and who believe God accepts them on the basis of their works. Rather than retreating into defensive isolation, Adventism and Evangelical ism should continue an open and friendly dialogue. We should encourage each other in looking to Christ alone for salvation, while dying to the old life of sin and rising to a life of holiness and service.

1 John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ
(Downers Grove, 111.: InterVarsity Press, 1986),
p. 380.

2 Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed.
Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker
Book House, 1984), p. 970.

3 Stott, pp. 350, 351. Scripture references in
parentheses are to the epistle of Galatians.

4 ————, "The Unforbidden Fruit," Christianity
Today, August 17, 1992, p. 36.

5 Kenneth R. Samples, "The Recent Truth
About Seventh-day Adventism," Christianity
Today, Feb. 5, 1990, p. 21.

6 Walter R. Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1965), p.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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Michelle Rader writes from Nashville, Tennessee.

June 1993

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