Who are the Seventh-day Adventists? This question has arisen recently in national politics. Someone in our offices here at Advancing Native Missions brought this to my attention. He then asked, “Who are the Seventh-day Adventists? And how wacky are they?” Good question.
Let me say first of all that I do not think of the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) church as a cult. I would say that it is a sect of Christianity. In the past, they were definitely more cult-like in their beliefs and practices. However, through the years there has been an increasing move towards a more evangelical faith and away from some of the aberrations of the past. However, even in saying this, I would not give an unreserved endorsement of SDA beliefs. Let me tell you why.
I will not take time to review Adventist history. (You can click here to read more about the SDA church.) However, there are some distinctive doctrines of the SDA church that deserve scrutiny, and merit some caution in how we view the Adventists.
First is their distinguishing doctrine of “Investigative Judgment.” This is considered one of the most important teachings of the SDA. When the Great Disappointment happened in 1844 and Christ did not return as expected, there was a struggle to understand what happened. What became official doctrine of the Adventist movement was that the date of 1844 was right, but the interpretation offered for this date was wrong. It is said that what happened in 1844 was that Christ began a new phase of His high priestly ministry in the heavenly sanctuary. He is believed to have moved from His work in the Holy Place to the Most Holy Place, or Holy of Holies. Once there He began a work that was comparable to the cleansing of the Sanctuary on the Day of Atonement. In the Holy of Holies Christ is believed to be cleansing the Sanctuary through His atoning blood. As part of this process He is engaged in an analysis of all believers, examining their loyalty and obedience to the Laws of God. This process is called Investigative Judgement.
The SDA church is straightforward in asserting belief in salvation through grace, by means of faith in the finished work of Christ. If you read their literature or check out their website, this is evident. However, the doctrine of Investigative Judgment seems to imply that our salvation is determined by Christ’s examination of our works and loyalty to God. On the surface, this is not salvation by grace alone. The issue is how this doctrine is understood by individual Adventists. Sad to say there are very many who live by a works-based faith. These individuals place themselves outside of a biblical understanding of salvation in Christ. Yet, there are many Adventists who have accepted Christ through faith in His grace alone. They view Investigative Judgment as a means of Christ nurturing and growing His children, but not determining salvation through a works-based process. They view Investigative Judgement as an accountability measure, not a salvation model.
Another unusual and controversial doctrine of the Adventists concerns the nature of atonement and the function of the scapegoat. In Leviticus 16 the Mosaic Law prescribes the ritual for the Day of Atonement. Two goats are used in this ritual—one for a sin offering, the other for the “scapegoat.” The scapegoat was not killed as a sacrifice. Instead, after the High Priest offered the first goat as a sin offering, he would confess the sins of Israel over the head of the live goat, the scapegoat. This goat would then be released in the wilderness, symbolically carrying away the sins of the people. This was done to “make atonement upon it” (Leviticus 16:10). The great prophetess of Seventh-day Adventism always understood and taught that the scapegoat of Leviticus 16 was ultimately fulfilled in Satan (cf. “The Scapegoat in the Writings of Ellen G. White”). She taught that after Christ’s work in the heavenly Sanctuary is complete then the Lord will return and bring judgment to the earth. Satan and all his angels will be bound on this destroyed and burning planet for 1000 years. It is during this Millennium period that Lucifer has the sins of humanity placed upon him and functions as the Scapegoat.
How is this to be interpreted? Many have seen this as straightforwardly asserting that Satan himself has a role in atonement for sin. The work of Christ is therefore not sufficient and it actually takes Satan to complete the work of salvation. If this interpretation is accepted, it is not only heretical, it is insulting to our Lord. However, many Adventists affirm the completeness of the atoning work of Christ. They assert that as the Scapegoat the Devil takes on the responsibility for his own sins, and his further responsibility for all the sins that he has directly or indirectly caused to occur in human history. In this manner, he bears punishment for sin, but not in a sense of atoning for them. Christ’s death is seen as the only atoning sacrifice. Satan’s role as Scapegoat is seen as punitive, but not atoning.
Yet even this latter interpretative is problematic. It is clear in Leviticus 16 that the scapegoat is part of the atoning process for Israel. To say that the Devil performs this function is troubling, to say the least. It is evident that the Adventist must do quite a bit of intellectual and scriptural gymnastics to land on their feet when it comes to the doctrine of the atonement.
A third troublesome doctrine is their view of the Sabbath. As is evident from the very name of the church, they believe that the seventh day is the true Sabbath. This fact was originally revealed to Ellen G. White in a vision from God. She saw the Ten Commandments displayed before her, and then a light shone down from God and illuminated the Fourth Commandment. She understood this to mean that God’s command to worship on Saturday was eternal and inviolate. This has been a major tenet of the SDA church ever since.
In the past the Adventists were so certain that seventh-day Sabbath keeping was God’s will that they saw worship on Sunday as being pagan and devilish. They actually used to teach that to worship on Sunday was the Mark of the Beast. Sunday worship was equated with being part of the worldly Babylon system. How do contemporary Adventists view this issue? First of all, Sabbath-keeping is not only an essential doctrine for them, but an essential part of their Christian life and experience. Much of their theology and behavior revolves around the Sabbath.
What about Sunday worship being the Mark of the Beast? The answer will vary from individual to individual, and congregation to congregation. There are many who will still unabashedly declare that Sunday worship is pagan and indicates the Mark of the Beast. There are some who modify this somewhat and state that worship on the first day of the week is a preparation for the coming Anti-Christ kingdom and the Mark of the Beast. Others are more tolerant and while affirming Saturday as the Sabbath, will still allow that other Christians worship on Sunday. Yet, they would say, these other Christians are still missing the complete will of God for any follower of Christ. The final word on the matter is this: To be a Seventh-day Adventist means believing in the importance of the Sabbath and viewing this as a priority in the Christian experience.
There are other doctrines and issues with the SDA that we could delve into. However, these three suffice to point out that there are areas of concern for Bible-believing Christians. While we cannot condemn all Adventists as heretics and cultists, at the same time we cannot wholeheartedly endorse their faith. Yes, there are many Adventists who have genuine, saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet, sad to say, there are also many others who hold onto erroneous doctrines from the church’s past, or interpret distinctive SDA doctrines in such a way, that they do not hold to a biblical faith in Christ. Our hope and prayer is that these individuals will find the light of truth in the Scriptures and come to true faith in Christ. We also pray that the Seventh-day Adventist church itself will continue to move closer to an evangelical, Bible-based doctrine, and leave behind the errors and falsehoods of the past.