There has been quite a reaction in the last couple of days within the Adventist community about the latest episode of Family Guy, in which Seventh-day Adventists are briefly discussed. You can watch the link below:
Most of the reaction I have heard has been positive, though some have said the clip needs to be watched in its larger context to truly see whether it is positive or negative. I have not yet been able to do that, but leaving that behind, I think the clip betrays a misunderstanding that most Adventists and some other Christians do not recognize. The sentiment of many is that Family Guy does a good job of showing just how silly it is for mainline and conservative Christians to think we are all that different. After all, we essentially believe the same thing; we just happen to go to church on Saturday. (Many Adventists view it as a positive that other Christians are just beginning to realize we’re not all that different.)
I know most Seventh-day Adventists recognize that there are other differences, of course, but these are “minor” differences. Our basic understanding of the gospel, salvation, grace, and so forth, is essentially the same as that of the “typical” Protestant denominations.
But is this so?
I would propose that there are incredible differences between our fundamental understanding of the gospel and the average Evangelical’s. Of course, we run the risk of painting everyone with a broad brush, but, nevertheless, in a general sense, the Adventist version of the gospel, I would submit, is more compelling, more powerful, and more heart-changing. This is not to say that we are superior or that other Christians cannot be saved. It’s just that our understanding of God’s character, His way of salvation, indeed, His love, is a more robust version of the gospel. And, as my dad likes to say, the Evangelical gospel can “save” a person but it cannot “translate” a person.
What are those fundamental differences in our understanding of the gospel and the typical Evangelical’s? I realize the term “Evangelical” is a very broad category, but I would like to offer a few key areas of differences between a large segment of Evangelicalism and Adventism.
A few caveats are in order, however: first, I do not want to approach this in an arrogant way. Again, I do not feel like Adventists are superior to any other Christians. I do not feel like we are loved more by God or that others cannot be saved. I do think, however, that, as a whole Adventists have continued the Reformation and accepted “light” that others have refused to embrace. This comes with greater responsibility more than anything else.
This is not to say, either, that we should distance ourselves from our fellow Christian brothers and sisters and say that we should not have fellowship with them. Nor is it to say that we should spend a great deal of our time in our interactions with fellow Christians emphasizing our differences. It is simply to recognize that there are fundamental differences, and picking up a book on the gospel by an Evangelical is not the same thing as picking up a book by an Adventist. So we mustn’t assume that it’s all right to read a book or listen to a sermon on the gospel by non-Adventists because their gospel and ours is the same (I am not saying we shouldn’t read or listen to non-Adventists; I am just saying we should expect – and be aware of – the differences).
Similarly, the reason one would want to highlight the differences is so that we can recognize just how good the good news is that we have in our possession, which should compel us to want to share it with our fellow Christian brothers and sisters. We don’t want to do it in a condescending way, but if we have something that excites and compels us, wouldn’t we naturally want to lovingly share that with others?
If, on the other hand, we believe our gospel is simply the same gospel and we have nothing to really share with our fellow Christians on the basics of the gospel, we might be robbing them of the fullness and depth of the gospel, which might be the exact remedy to what ails them. In short, if there is no perceived difference, we won’t be compelled to point our brothers and sisters to a higher and richer experience.
Secondly, I recognize I am a pastor who enjoys theological exercise, but I am going to try my hardest to avoid overemphasizing theological nuances. The differences I am seeking to point out are core, fundamental differences.
Thirdly, I want to make it clear that Adventists, along with other denominations, believe that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone. As we will see below, however, we do have a little different definition in many regards to the key terms “saved,” “grace,” and “faith.” So, although Adventists and Evangelicals might agree on that concept at face value, what an Adventist means by being “saved” and an Evangelical means, for example, may be incredibly different.
1. The nature of God. Our basic understanding of God’s character, as seen in the Great Controversy (GC) theme, is really the grand metanarrative that binds all of Adventism’s beliefs together. While many Christians give cursory thought and attention to the idea of a “good vs. evil” dynamic in the universe, it is really the lens through which we read the whole Bible.
And the theme really brings out a core difference between Adventists’ understanding of God and Evangelicals’. The GC theme points out that God is fundamentally other-centered, that He is humble, that He is willing to open Himself up to questioning, that He regards human freedom as more important than getting His own way all the time. Though certainly not the view held by all Christians, the most common understanding of God is influenced by John Calvin, whose God is most concerned with self-glorification and control. Out of this comes doctrines like predestination and a great deal of other self-centered theology.
Of course, many Christians do rightfully reject Calvin’s view of God (whether in part or as a whole), but I am not aware of entire denominations that fully embrace the GC picture of God. At the very least, it cannot be emphasized enough how different the Adventist view of God is and most Evangelicals’. When one gets a picture as to just how loving and humble God is – demonstrated, especially, by His willingness to be slandered by Satan and judged by the Universe – one’s appreciation of God is capable of reaching greater heights than what one would get simply by consuming the Evangelical diet. (Ironically, in the Family Guy video, the discussion was between an Adventist and a Methodist. This is ironic because of all the denominations, historic Methodism perhaps aligns more with Adventism’s theological framework than any other denomination.)
2. The nature of man. Perhaps no verse in the Bible demonstrates the depth of power that the Adventist gospel employs over and against the Evangelical gospel than Matthew 26:38 (which is restated in Mark 14:34). There, Jesus utters to Peter, James, and John, while in Gethsemane, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death.” It cannot be underscored how significant this passage is in distinguishing the power of the Adventist gospel in comparison with the Evangelical gospel.
Simply put, because of the Adventist understanding of the nature of man – which states that human beings do not naturally possess an immortal soul – the sacrifice of Christ reaches to a much greater depth and, as a result, is able to compel a much greater appreciation. This is not to say that Evangelicals don’t have a deep appreciation for Christ’s sacrifice, it’s just that the appreciation, theoretically speaking, has a “ceiling.” This is because, whether realized or not, the Evangelical version of Christ’s sacrifice cannot appreciate the total annihilation that Christ was facing when He was in Gethsemane and ultimately experienced at Calvary.
Though most Evangelicals would probably not recognize the logical outworking of their own theology, the fact remains that when the belief is in place that man possesses an immortal soul, it means that Christ’s sacrifice is blunted because, ultimately, his humanity never truly met its end. This is why Catholics and Evangelicals alike need to spend so much time emphasizing the physical suffering that Christ experienced because they are unable to comprehend the true sacrifice – the annihilation of His soul – that Christ faced.
And this is one of the chief reasons why the Adventist gospel is more powerful; that the Adventist gospel can “translate” while the Evangelical gospel can only save. When a person meditates upon the implications of Christ’s sacrifice, the same Christ whose soul was crushed to death, the appreciation that results from that meditation knows no bounds.
Of course, it needs to be mentioned that there are a significant number of Christians
who do not subscribe to the “immortal soul” belief. Many leading Christians are beginning to see the folly of such a view. Yet the fact still remains that no denomination – with the exception of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and perhaps a few others – subscribe to the same belief on the nature of man.
3. The nature of Christ. The nature of Christ debate has never truly been officially settled within Adventism. Yet that is, to some degree, irrelevant. Whether one takes a post-lapsarian view or a pre-lapsarian view (or a combination of the two, which seems to be the working understanding of many within the church), our understanding of Christ’s nature, and the “risks” He subjected Himself to in becoming man, is foreign to many Christians.
What do I mean by this?
Let me simply quote Anthony J. Hoekema who, in critiquing Adventism in his book The Four Major Cults wrote this about our views of Christ’s human nature: “It should be observed here that Christian theologians have usually insisted that we must not say that Christ could have sinned” (The Four Major Cults, p. 114).
Christ could not have sinned?
I will not get into all the theological issues at play here, and those that contribute to this view, but, suffice it to say, the Adventist understanding of Christ has a greater ability to give one an appreciation – and thus elicit a response of faith – for Christ, His condescension, His humility, and His sacrifice. It is able to bind our hearts closer to His when we realize that when He took upon Himself humanity, He wasn’t just playacting and going through the motions. He faced real struggles, real temptations, and the real possibility that He could have sinned. And thus, He “is able to aid those who are temped” (Hebrews 2:18).
4. The nature of the atonement. There are two issues here in this subcategory that relate to Evangelicals’ ties to Calvinism. The first is the teaching that says Christ’s atonement on Calvary was “limited” (ie., He only died for the elect) while the second relates to the concept of the “perseverance of the saints.” A more popular version of this latter teaching, though certainly not condoned by “hardcore” Calvinists, is the “once saved, always saved” belief. The Adventist version of the gospel rejects both these views.
To begin with, we reject outright the idea that Christ merely died for the elect. We believe He died for every single sinner that has ever or will ever live (see 1 John 2:2). Many Christians also believe this idea as well but they may not fully recognize the implications of what that means. Though not embraced by all Adventists, many see the further implications of Christ’s sacrifice in the fact that His death has actually affected all human beings, whether realized or not. In other words, though it might be expressed differently by different people, Christ, in a sense, “saved” every human being on some level already. At the very least, He saved us from premature death and condemnation. Indeed, as Ellen White states, we owe Him even this “earthly life” (see The Desire of Ages, p. 660).
I don’t believe most Evangelicals understand this.
Secondly, we reject the view that says once a person accepts Jesus one time, his destiny is sealed for all eternity. This is partially why we have the doctrine of the investigative judgment – which ultimately vindicates God’s decision-making process as to who should be granted eternal life and who shouldn’t.
Thus, what it means to be “saved” is fundamentally different. Being “saved” for Evangelicals is something a person did ten years ago, or when he or she said a prayer last week. Being “saved” to an Adventist is an ongoing experience of continual surrender – which, in many senses, is a lot more assurance-laced than hardcore Calvinists who say that if a person’s life is not demonstrating fruit in his or her life it must mean that he or she was not elected by God to begin with. Talk about anxiety!
These are four of the most fundamental differences I see between the Adventist gospel and the Evangelical gospel. There are more, of course, but I will leave it at that. I think these four are enough to demonstrate why the Adventist gospel is more robust, more compelling, and ultimately able to bring a person to full maturity in the Christian walk so as to get his or her eyes off of self and squarely onto God.
For further reading, I might suggest Herbert Douglass’s A Fork in the Road, which details the fascinating dynamics surrounding the Questions on Doctrine issue that to a large degree divided Adventism 50 years ago (and continues to do so today, though unrealized by many).